This evening I went to the premiere of “Secrets of the Surface: The Mathematical Vision of Maryam Mirzakhani”, a film chronicling the life and mathematical achievements of the first female and first Iranian Fields medalist. The film walked through Mirzakhani’s life, from childhood in Iran up to her work on the moduli spaces of Riemann surfaces, her family, and her death from cancer in 2017.
Following the screening was a Q&A moderated by Hélène Barcelo of MSRI, with panelists Ingrid Daubechies, Amie Wilkinson, Jayadev Athreya, Tatiana Toro, all mathematicians who knew Mirzakhani; also on the panel were Erica Klarreich, a math journalist who narrated the film, and George Csicsery, the director and producer. Here’s an incomplete and slightly edited transcript of the panel.
CSICSERY: This film could not have been made without MSRI. One person who I know would love to be here is David Eisenbud, who initiated this project a little over two years ago and could not come tonight. He was extremely obsessed with the accuracy of the mathematical narration and animation.
Q: Can you talk about raising a family as a woman mathematician (or otherwise)?
DAUBECHIES: It’s a question I thought about when I was young, because the famous mathematicians I knew of (Emmy Noether) didn’t have families. But then I met Cathleen Morawetz and she had 4. And you only need one counterexample to know it’s not a theorem.
CSICSERY: I interviewed Cathleen Morawetz a few years ago and she said it was a piece of cake.
DAUBECHIES: You just need to keep track of what is important to you.
TORO: I think they complement each other very well. Having kids allows you to keep your sanity in mathematics.
WILKINSON: I would say the same is true for me, but I do come from quite a position of privilege, so I don’t want to answer this on behalf of all the women who are facing a choice between having children and having a career. I think it can be a very serious obstacle. I’ve been told that it’s been helpful to say that there was a moment in my life as a mathematician when I wondered if I would ever prove a theorem again, when I had just had a baby.
DAUBECHIES: I had that same experience. When you’ve just had a child, your body has been taken over as a factory to make a baby. After the delivery, I couldn’t concentrate, and I was thinking, “I make my living with my brain, and it’s gone?” and I was really afraid. I didn’t even tell my husband—and he’s my best friend. Then it came back, and I was relieved.
WILKINSON: I told a colleague of mine this story and he passed it on to someone else, and she came back to me and told me it was tremendously helpful.
TORO: Ingrid talked about her husband as her best friend. A supportive partner is the key to success.
WILKINSON: That’s something that Maryam had in Jan.
Q: Can you say something about shooting the film in Iran?
CSICSERY: I visited Iran alone and worked with an Iranian film company, as talented filmmakers as I’ve ever met. We shot for ten days in Isfahan and Tehran and there were no difficulties. This happened in March and I doubt if it could be reproduced today. I learned a lot about the reverence that the people at those schools I visited have for Maryam. Really a kind of stature that I don’t think American mathematicians could aspire to in a thousand years. Maryam is a national hero. I don’t know what kind of employment you’d have to have here to achieve that. It was kind of impressive to see how she was thought of. The respect for her and reverence is trying to become a foundation of higher education and educational reform.
Q: Maybe you can say a little more about the education system and the specifics of Mirzakhani’s trajectory? How did she get to the middle school and high school?
CSICSERY: I think that the students who show talent are caught up in the system immediately, with teachers pulling them forward and shepherding them into the next level, and making the contacts with university and the IMO and competition programs. There’s a community that passes people on so they don’t fall away. We have that in this country but not in the same way, it happens more haphazardly. It’s quite possible—likely—that it’s a tiny elite that I was seeing. They have produced a talented pool all over the world.
Q: I’m curious if there are practical applications of this mathematics that Mirzakhani developed.
DAUBECHIES: As the applied mathematician at the table, I don’t know of any concrete applications of her work. But I can name so many examples of pure mathematics that nobody thought would ever have an application that I think it’s highly likely that her work will have an application. One that I cannot foretell—if I knew, I would do it. I strongly believe that as an applied mathematician you have to learn as much pure mathematics as you have an appetite for. So no, I don’t know of an application and no, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
ATHREYA: Even though the trajectory of billiards is a simple problem in Newtonian mechanics, surprisingly enough we don’t know that much about it. So I think there could be applications in physics, and in things like supersymmetric quantum field theory, as long as you ask me no further questions.
Q: Has Maryam’s work changed the math you do or the way in which you do it?
ATHREYA: Maryam was a year ahead of me so was someone who I looked up to, but was a near peer. Seeing what she did encouraged me to take bigger swings, at harder problems.
Q: I have a question for the journalist on stage. I’ve been thinking about all the appreciation of Mirzakhani’s work in Iran, but what is your impression of the appreciation of her work here in the US?
KLARREICH: I don’t really know, because in general when I write something it goes out into the world and then I don’t know that much about how it’s received. But when Mirzakhani won the Fields medal, I wrote a profile of her and I believe that it’s one of the most popular articles that I’ve written for them. I don’t’ know how many people read it but I believe it’s still read quite a bit. As George was talking about how respected she is in Iran, I was thinking about how many of my non-mathematician friends could even name a mathematician and I don’t think it’s that many.
Q: What are the challenges of writing mathematics for a popular audience?
KLARREICH: It is difficult. In this case, it helped a lot that my very ancient Ph.D. was in this area of mathematics. I think, though, that for any mathematics out there, there is some little nugget you can convey to a general audience and you just have to keep digging until you find that.
CSICSERY: Some of the most exciting moments in the production process were the discussions between Jayadev and Erica about the scripting of the explanations and the animation.
Q: What advice do you think Maryam would have had or do any of you have for young women who aspire to be mathematicians?
DAUBECHIES: If you or your friends like mathematics and have fun doing it, then you should do it. And you can do it. And there will be ways in which you can use that mathematics in your life. There are jobs for mathematicians in academia and elsewhere. Mathematicians are a kind of universal donor. The skills you learn becoming a mathematician you can apply in so many different directions.
WILKINSON: I think that is essentially the kind of advice Maryam would give. She was very positive. She also acknowledged when things were difficult. She never had any problem saying when things were difficult or minimized her challenges. But she was always positive and was a very encouraging person. I think what she would say would have been very practical and encouraging.
TORO: I would say persevere, and look at her life. That’s proof you can do it. When we think of heroes, we usually think of people much older than us. But she was my hero. She accomplished many things, mathematically but also otherwise. The way she is respected in Iran is proof of that.
Q: It sounds like she directly changed life for people in Iran, changing the image of women and becoming a national hero. Do you have more examples of the impact she had?
CSICSERY: The impact visible in the film is simply the inspirational effect, primarily on high school and college students who see her as a role model and feel that it’s acceptable to do what she did. I think that’s a very important step. I think that’s a concrete accomplishment.
Q: How aware was Maryam’s daughter of her stature and does she show any interest in mathematics?
CSICSERY: Maryam’s husband, Jan, has tried to shield Anahita from all of the attention. I was able to persuade him to allow us one day of filming the two of them. I didn’t ask for an interview with Anahita, she’s eight years old. She’s a strong young girl who is very attached to her father and that’s all I wanted to say about it.
BARCELO: Maryam was very private and Jan is definitely respecting that.
Q: Are there any writings of how she faced death and disease? Did she become philosophical toward the end of her life?
CSICSERY: She stayed away from questions about religion. People I interviewed who knew her beliefs would not tell me. I think this was on her part, an act of diplomacy which has cemented her status in Iran because she did not make commitments of that type, and it also protected her family.
Q: Does anyone know what happened to her notes that were seen in the film?
CSICSERY: They’re in the possession of her husband.
Q: Maryam broke the mold in so many ways. It seems like she was constantly supported. Was there any pushback?
WILKINSON: I don’t know very much at all about resistance she got from her colleagues or peers. I do know that when she got the Fields medal, people on the Internet wrote nasty things about how she got it because she was a woman and so on.
CSICSERY: I think she got a lot of support from her teachers and there’s a whole generation of Iranian mathematicians who owe a lot to those very teachers. That was an opportunity that’s not open to everyone.
WILKINSON: The few times we talked about it, she never said anything about any resistance she got in her career or in Iran. The only things she talked about were personal.
BARCELO: Any last words?
CSICSERY: I want to thank the panelists, and also there are a few DVDs left outside.