Maryam Mirzakhani was an Iranian-born mathematician and a professor of mathematics. In 2005, as a result of her research, she was honored in Popular Science’s fourth annual “Brilliant 10” in which she was acknowledged as one of the top ten young minds who have pushed their fields in innovative directions.
Maryam was born on May 12, 1977 in Tehran, Iran, where she lived before moving to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Harvard University.
She discovered her passion for math in middle school. As a young girl, she always loved “to scribble and color the worlds she imagined. . . . Together, her art and stories made magic.” She wanted to be a famous writer when she grew up. But then, at age twelve, she was introduced to geometry, and suddenly she found a new passion. The author writes:
“Maryam dreamed of magical shapes: they looked like bulging light bulbs and endless figure eights and layers and layers of doughnuts. She made up fantastic tales about them. . . . Maryam came to love these number stories like she loved the characters from her favorite books.”
By high school she was participating in the International Mathematical Olympiad, winning gold medals in 1994 and 1995. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Sharif University in Tehran and in 1999 headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for graduate study at Harvard. She received her doctorate in 2004 for her “exceptionally creative, highly original thesis” on geodesics, or curves representing the shortest path between two points in a surface. (The quote is from the citation accompanying the Leonard M and Eleanor B Blumenthal Award for the Advancement of Research in Pure Mathematics for her thesis.)
From 2004-2008 Maryam was an assistant professor of mathematics at Princeton University. In 2008 she became a full professor at Stanford University.
In 2014, Mirzakhani was honored with the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics. In so doing, she became both the first, and to date, the only woman and the first Iranian to be honored with the award.
Maryam described herself as a “slow” mathematician, saying that “you have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math.” To solve problems, she would draw doodles on sheets of paper and write mathematical formulas around the drawings. Her daughter Anahita described her mother’s work as “painting.”
I don’t have any particular recipe [for developing new proofs] … It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck, you might find a way out.”
In addition she made use of her passion and talent for drawing and writing. Reid writes, “She crafted mathematical formulas as if she were plotting the twists and turns of a suspenseful novel.”
On July 14, 2017, Mirzakhani died of breast cancer at the age of 40.
“Maryam’s magic wand math helped people all over the world. Astronauts could plot safer courses for their rocket ships. Meteorologists could predict weather patterns with more speed and accuracy. Doctors could understand how dangerous diseases grew and spread.”
The author concludes with a Note, in which she writes about how she became inspired by Maryam’s story. It reminded her, she said, that “none of us is just one thing. Maryam was a storyteller who was also a mathematical genius.” She adds:
“There are entire universes of talents and skills, and just because you love one thing dearly doesn’t mean you can’t excel at another. In fact, combining them might be the ingredient that helps you think, imagine, and achieve like no one else can.”
Following the Author’s Note there is a timeline and list of more resources to learn about Maryam and her work.
Illustrator Aaliya Jaleel has created bright and pleasing pictures that include representations of mathematical formulas and that reflect Jaleel’s background in animation.
Evaluation: I love to see Maryam Mirzakhani and her achievements becoming better known, even if the specifics of her mathematical concepts are beyond the suggested reading group of age 5 and up (and probably beyond most adults). I also really like the author’s message about how each person’s unique interests can combine to yield outcomes never before imagined – a good response to kids who fear there is nothing new to contribute.
Published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2021