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August 20, 2014

Maryam Mirzakhani, Fields medalist

Posted by: David Weininger

Last week, the Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman ever to win the Fields Medal, widely seen as the highest scholarly honor in mathematics. Mirzakhani , who is on the Stanford University faculty, was cited for her work making connections among the fields of topology, geometry, and dynamical systems.

To find out what this mean for women in the field of mathematics, we turned to Margaret Murray, who is Lecturer in Rhetoric and Adjunct Professor of Mathematics at the University of Iowa. She's also the author of Women Becoming Mathematicians, which examines the lives of women who earned PhDs in mathematics from American institutions in the 1940s and 50s, and so documents the gradual progress made in the field in the postwar generation. She sent along these reflections:

One week ago today, 37-year-old Maryam Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal—perhaps the most important prize in the field of mathematics. Mirzakhani, a Professor of Mathematics at Stanford, proves deep theorems that draw on the fields of geometry, topology, and dynamical systems. Just 10 years after completing her Harvard PhD, she has earned the distinction of being the first and only woman to receive the Fields in its 78-year history.

The Fields Medal is commonly referred to as “the Nobel Prize for mathematics,” since mathematics has no Nobel Prize of its own. But there is one striking difference between the Fields and the Nobel. Fields Medal recipients must be no older than 40 in the year of their award. The Nobel Prize has no such age restriction; in fact, the average age of Nobel recipients in the sciences is in the mid-to-late 50s.

The Fields Medal age restriction illustrates one of the key aspects of what I have called the myth of the mathematical life course (“the myth”)—a legend the mathematical community has long told itself about how a mathematician’s life should unfold. According to the myth, mathematicians are expected to work with single-minded devotion on mathematical research from their teens through their early 40s. Seen in this context, the Fields Medal rewards those who have made the very best of the prime years of their mathematical youth.

But the prime years of mathematical youth are also prime years for starting a family and raising children. And among those women mathematicians who have children, many have found that they do their best work once their children are grown. This was certainly true of many of the women who earned mathematics PhDs in the 1940s and 1950s, whose lives are the focus of Women Becoming Mathematicians.

Perhaps someday, the International Mathematical Union will remove the age restriction from the Fields Medals, in acknowledgment of the varied ways in which both women and men pursue excellence in mathematical research. For now, I’d like to salute Professor Maryam Mirzakhani for her inspiring achievement!

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