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Stanford boffin is first woman to bag 'math Nobel Prize'

Maryam Mirzakhani's work on doughnuts and spheres wins Fields Medal

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Iranian academic Maryam Mirzakhani is today the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal, known as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”.

Mirzakhani, a professor of maths at Stanford University, landed the top gong for her work on the symmetry of curved surfaces. You can all about her research, right here [PDF].

"This is a great honour,” she said in a statement. “I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians. I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years."

Mirzakhani’s work in geometry and dynamical systems, particularly on the symmetry of curved surfaces like spheres, doughnuts and hyperbolic objects, is mostly theoretical, but has implications for physics and quantum field theory, Stanford explained.

"Research into these areas does have unexpected applications, but that isn't what motivates mathematicians like Maryam to pursue it. Rather, the motivation is to understand, as deeply as possible, these basic mathematical structures," said Ralph Cohen, a professor of mathematics and the senior associate dean for the natural sciences in Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences. "Maryam's work really is an outstanding example of curiosity-driven research."

Mirzakhani first became known in the international mathematics community as a teenager when she won gold medals in the 1994 and 1995 International Math Olympiads, finishing with a perfect score the second time round. Although she originally wanted to become a writer, her proficiency in maths steered her in that direction.

She earned her degree from the Sharif University of Technology in 1999 and her doctorate from Harvard University under the tutelage of Fields Medal winner Curtis McMullen.

Three other mathematicians won Fields Medals this year, including Artur Avila for work in dynamical systems theory; Manjul Bhargava for developing new methods in the geometry of numbers; and Martin Hairer, who was awarded the medal for contributions to the theory of stochastic partial differential equations.

The awards were established in 1936, and its prizes include a medal stamped with the head of Archimedes and an £8,000 payout. This year's gongs were handed out at a ceremony in Seoul. ®

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