The Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, who died on Friday, at the age of forty, was known to her colleagues as a virtuoso in the dynamics and geometry of complex surfaces—“science-fiction mathematics,” one admirer called it—and to her young daughter, Anahita, as something of an artist.
According to Roya Beheshti, an algebraic geometer at Washington University in St. Louis, and a lifelong friend—the two talked math, read math, and did math, sometimes competitively, for several years growing up—Mirzakhani’s passion was evident early on.
From the very beginning, from a very young age, it was clear that she had very big goals.” When Mirzakhani was in sixth grade, in Tehran, a teacher discouraged her interest in mathematics, noting that she was not particularly talented, not at the top of the class.
A quarter century later, in 2014, she became the first woman (and the first Iranian) to win the Fields Medal, math’s highest honor.
Mirzakhani took pride in the accolades, but they were not her main concern.
When her doctoral adviser, Harvard’s Curtis McMullen, delivered the Fields Medal laudation on her work, at the 2014 International Congress of Mathematicians, in Seoul, Mirzakhani sat in the front row with her daughter and her husband, the Stanford computer scientist Jan Vondrák.