Maryam Mirzakhani. (Photo credit: Stanford University.)
Nine days ago, we lost a bright star of mathematics: Maryam Mirzakhani. Ever since, it seems like the whole world has been in mourning. Many beautiful obituaries have been written in major publications, like Scientific American, the New York Times, and the New Yorker. She has been mourned in social media and blogs, by mathematicians and “civilians” alike. Mathematician-turned-politician Rep. James McNerney gave a tribute on the House floor. Iranian newspapers honored their national hero, some of them even showing her with her head uncovered, breaking long standing hijab rules.
Comic by Bozorgmehr Hosseinpour. Caption reads “In mourning of the passing of Maryam Mirzakhani (Mathematician).” (Translation credit: Shabnam Akhtari.)
I never met Maryam, and yet I feel a huge sense of loss. In trying to understand this feeling I realized that it’s because she changed mathematics for all the women and girls out there, including me — only two years younger than her. Not because I feel like I can accomplish what she did (I don’t!) but because she set the bar, or rather, moved it, for what women can do. We’ve had other math heroines (I know I have many), but in 2014 she achieved something no woman had before: she won the Fields medal. Not only that, she was also widely regarded as an incredibly generous and kind person. And now I find out that while she was achieving these important milestones, she was also in the middle of her quiet fight with an aggressive form of cancer.
I know it’s not fair to put people (real, vulnerable humans) on pedestals, but she did become a symbol of hope for women in math, and we are all feeling that loss together. She was ours. I have seen women in math emailing each other to share the news and their grief, an outpouring of support on the AWM’s facebook page, and math women friends have even reported receiving condolence emails from relatives. I thought about writing a longer piece myself, but honestly all the obituaries I linked to above are so wonderful I didn’t even think I should compete. Instead, I want to have a sort of gathering, a virtual wake, or rather a celebration of her life, and I asked a few friends to help. Below, I have collected some thoughts from women mathematicians expressing how Maryam Mirzakhani changed the mathematical world for them, how she influenced them, and how this influence will live on. Feel free to post your own thoughts, tributes, and anecdotes in the comments section below.