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Maryam Mirzakhani: A Trailblazing Woman in Mathematics

Maryam Mirzakhani was a brilliant mathematician whose innovative thinking and profound contributions have left a lasting impact on the world of mathematics. Born on May 3, 1977, in Tehran, Iran, Maryam's journey in mathematics began in a high school for girls. Despite initial interests in reading and writing fiction, she was drawn to the challenges and possibilities of solving mathematical problems.


Maryam Maryam Mirzakhan: A pioneering woman in mathematics

A Woman in Mathematics from Patriarchal Iran


Maryam Mirzakhani was a brilliant mathematician whose innovative thinking and profound contributions have left a lasting impact on the world of mathematics. Born on May 3, 1977, in Tehran, Iran, Maryam's journey in mathematics began in a high school for girls. Despite initial interests in reading and writing fiction, she was drawn to the challenges and possibilities of solving mathematical problems.


Maryam's talent became evident early on when she achieved the gold medal level in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) as a high school student—not once, but twice. In 1994, she notched a perfect score, making her one of the few females to achieve this feat. This early success was a hint of the groundbreaking work she would continue to do.


For her undergraduate studies, Maryam attended Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, where she earned her bachelor's degree. She then moved to the United States for graduate work, obtaining her PhD from Harvard University under the guidance of the renowned mathematician Curtis McMullen. Her dissertation on the geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces was so significant that it led to three papers in major mathematics journals.


Maryam's career blossomed as she joined the faculty at Princeton University and later moved to Stanford University. Her work mainly focused on complex geometric structures on surfaces and their deformations. One of her major contributions was her work on Teichmüller theory, a branch of mathematics that deals with the metrics of curved surfaces and shapes like spheres and doughnut forms (tori).


Maryam Mirzakhani: a women in mathematics superhero

Maryam's research wasn’t just abstract; it had implications across multiple disciplines, including quantum field theory, engineering, and theoretical physics. She explored properties of spaces and surfaces where the rules of geometry as commonly understood do not always apply. Her achievements earned her the Fields Medal in 2014, making her the first woman and the first Iranian to win what is often described as the Nobel Prize for mathematics.


Tragically, Maryam Mirzakhani’s brilliant mind and promising career were cut short by illness. She passed away on July 14, 2017, after battling breast cancer, which had spread to her bones. Maryam was only 40 years old at the time of her death. Her untimely passing was a great loss to the mathematical community and to all who admired her perseverance, intelligence, and groundbreaking contributions to mathematics. Despite her short life, her work continues to inspire and influence the field of mathematics, leaving a lasting legacy that transcends her time on earth. Her death brought an outpouring of tributes from around the world, reflecting her impact not only as a mathematician but as a role model for young scientists, especially girls, who saw in her a beacon of hope and possibility.


Maryam Mirzakhani's dedication to mathematics was paralleled by her role as a mother and a mentor, inspiring young mathematicians, especially girls, to pursue math and science. Her legacy is not just in her discoveries but in her encouraging a new generation to dream big and break barriers.



Become a woman in mathematics with this experiment


Be like Maryam Mirzakhani in this DIY Science Experiment:


Exploring the Möbius Strip


Materials You'll Need

  •  Paper (a strip about 1-2 inches wide and at least 11 inches long)

  • Scissors

  • Tape


Procedure

  1. Create Your Strip: Cut a long strip of paper. Make sure it's straight and the same width all the way along.

  2. Twist and Tape: Hold one end of the strip and give it a half-twist (180 degrees), then bring the ends of the strip together to form a loop. Tape the ends together securely. Make sure the tape covers the entire width of the paper so that it forms a smooth surface.

  3. Explore the Surface: Use a pencil or marker to draw a line along the center of the strip. Start at the tape and continue in one direction. You’ll find that the line meets back at the start without ever lifting the pencil, covering both "sides" of the strip. This shows that a Möbius strip has only one continuous surface.

  4. Explore the Edge: Similarly, try tracing your finger along the edge of the strip. Start at one point and move along the edge; you will return to your starting point having traveled along the entire edge. This demonstrates that the Möbius strip has just one edge.

  5. Cutting the Strip: For an additional experiment, cut the Möbius strip along the centerline where you drew the line. Instead of creating two separate strips, you'll end up with a larger single loop with two full twists in it, which can be quite surprising!

  6. Discussion and Reflection: Think about and discuss why the Möbius strip behaves the way it does. How does the twist change the properties of the paper strip? What might this tell us about how we perceive dimensions and surfaces?

This experiment not only provides a hands-on way to explore an interesting mathematical concept but also introduces foundational ideas for topology, a branch of mathematics that studies properties that are preserved through deformations, twistings, and stretchings of objects. Maryam Mirzakhani was particularly interested in the properties of surfaces, and while a Möbius strip is a basic example, it beautifully illustrates the kind of conceptual thinking involved in higher-dimensional geometry. This activity is a great way to stimulate curiosity and wonder about the mathematical world around us.


Be inspired - be the inspiration


Have you read the Rocket Girls series yet? Its protagonist Sam Gold is a girl scientist just like you who solves mysteries using science.


Upload a picture of yourself with your copy of Rocket Girls or your Möbius strip and tag our Instagram @RocketGirlsSci so you too can be acknowledged as a Rocket Girl!


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