Iran was in shock on Sunday after the mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman in history to win the Fields medal, maths’ Nobel prize, died of cancer aged 40.
Her death on Saturday in a hospital in California dominated front pages in Tehran, with a number of newspapers breaking with tradition and publishing photos of her without a head covering – a rare tribute that showed her prominence overrode rules requiring all Iranian women to be covered in public. Mirzakhani died after breast cancer spread to her bone marrow.
When the Stanford University professor won the Fields medal in 2014, state-run newspapers had digitally retouched her photograph to put a scarf over her head while others published a sketch showing only her face.
The Sunday front page of Hamshahri, a state newspaper, particularly stood out, winning praise for portraying her “the way she was”.
“Maths genius yielded to algebra of death,” read the daily’s headline over a calm and subdued image of Mirzakhani without a hijab. “The queen of mathematics’ eternal departure,” read the headline of Donya-ye-Eghtesad.
The Fields medal, first given in 1936 and to a total of 55 medallists to date, is awarded to exceptional talents under the age of 40 once every four years. Mirzakhani won the prize for her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces”.
Christiane Rousseau, vice-president of the International Mathematics Union, said at the time it was “an extraordinary moment”. “Marie Curie had Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry at the beginning of the 20th century, but in mathematics this is the first time we have a woman winning the most prestigious prize there is. This is a celebration for women.”
Firouz Naderi, an Iranian Nasa scientist, a former programme manager for Mars exploration, paid his tribute on Instagram. “A light was turned off today, it breaks my heart … Gone far too soon.” He later tweeted: “A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife.”
There was an exceptional outpouring of tributes to Mirzakhani both in Iran and outside. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said: “The grievous passing of Maryam Mirzakhani, the eminent Iranian and world-renowned mathematician, is very much heartrending.” Rouhani also retweeted an image of her bare-headed.
In another sign that Mirzakhani was breaking more taboos even after her death, a group of parliamentarians in Iran on Sunday urged the speeding up of an amendment to a law that would allow children of Iranian mothers married to foreigners to be given Iranian nationality.
Mirzakhani is survived by her Czech scientist husband and her daughter but a marriage between an Iranian woman and a non-Muslim man was previously not recognised, complicating visits to Iran by their children.
Fars news agency reported on Sunday that 60 MPs were pressing for the amendments so that Mirzakhani’s daughter could visit Iran.
Mirzakhanai was born and raised in Iran. She studied at Tehran’s prestigious Sharif university and later finished a PhD at Harvard in 2004.
In February 1998, a bus bringing the mathematical elite of Tehran’s Sharif University back from a competition in the western city of Ahwaz skidded out of control and crashed into a ravine. Seven award-winning mathematicians and two drivers lost their lives in the crash. One of the survivors was Maryam Mirzakhani.
Mirzakhani and at least two other survivors later left their country, underlying Iran’s long-standing problem with brain drain.
“Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science,” said Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Stanford University. “Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honours only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path. Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring, and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world.”
Edward Frenkel, UC Berkeley professor and the author of the New York Times bestseller Love and Math, tweeted: “RIP #MaryamMirzakhani – a great mathematician and wonderful human being who broke a glass ceiling and inspired many, men and women alike.”
According to Stanford, “Mirzakhani specialised in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry.” She predominantly worked on geometric structures on surfaces and their deformations.
In a rare 2008 interview with the Clay Mathematics Institute, Mirzakhani said as a kid she dreamt of becoming a writer and read novels in her past time and did poorly at math at school. “I never thought I would pursue mathematics until my last year in high school,” she said.
“My older brother was the person who got me interested in science in general. He used to tell me what he learned in school. My first memory of mathematics is probably the time that he told me about the problem of adding numbers from 1 to 100.” (The answer is 5,050 and the trick is to look at pairs that add up to 101.)