An Iranian mathematician working in the US has become the first ever female winner of the celebrated Fields Medal. In a landmark hailed as “long overdue”, Prof Maryam Mirzakhani was recognised for her work on complex geometry. Four of the medals were presented in Seoul at the International Congress of Mathematicians, held every four years.
An Iranian mathematician working in the US has become the first ever female winner of the celebrated Fields Medal. In a landmark hailed as "long overdue", Prof Maryam Mirzakhani was recognised for her work on complex geometry. Four of the medals were presented in Seoul at the International Congress of Mathematicians, held every four years.
Awarded by a committee from the International Mathematical Union (IMU), the Fields Medal is regarded as something akin to a Nobel Prize for maths. It was established by Canadian mathematician John Fields and comes with a 15,000 Canadian dollar (£8,000) cash prize. First awarded in 1936 and then every four years since 1950, the medal is awarded to between two and four researchers, who must be no older than 40, because Fields wanted to encourage the winners to strive for "further achievement" as well as recognise their success.
'Icing on the cake'
In becoming the very first female medallist, Prof Mirzakhani - who teaches at Stanford University in California - ends what has been a long wait for the mathematics community.
Prof Dame Frances Kirwan, a member of the medal selection committee from the University of Oxford, pointed out that despite being viewed traditionally as "a male preserve", women have contributed to mathematics for centuries. She noted that around 40% of maths undergraduates in the UK are women, but that proportion declines rapidly at PhD level and beyond.
"I hope that this award will inspire lots more girls and young women, in this country and around the world, to believe in their own abilities and aim to be the Fields Medallists of the future," Prof Kirwan said.
Prof Sir John Ball, another British mathematician and a former president of the IMU, agreed that Prof Mirzakhani's win was "fantastically important". Speaking to BBC News from the congress in Seoul, South Korea, he said that a female winner was overdue and that Prof Mirzakhani is one of many brilliant women mathematicians.
He added that the committee had an unenviable job choosing the winners. "These four are really deserving of this recognition, but of course any work at this level also builds on exceptional work by other people."
Prof Mirzakhani's seminal research concerns shapes called Riemann surfaces. These are convoluted mathematical objects that can be analysed using complex numbers - i.e. numbers with real and imaginary parts.
In particular, she has studied "moduli spaces" of these shapes, which map all of the possible geometries of a Riemann surface into their own, new space.
Prof Alison Etheridge, a lecturer in applied mathematics at the University of Oxford, said she was thrilled by the announcement. "Women are doing so well now in mathematics that this is just icing on the cake," Prof Etheridge told the BBC. "It's the sort of thing which will really catch the public's imagination - and as a result I think it could have quite an impact on a new generation."