It is with both pleasure and sadness that I dedicate this year’s “Week of Inspirational Mathematics” to the life and work of my friend and colleague who tragically died recently – the mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani. When Maryam won the Field’s medal in 2014 – the highest honor in mathematics – the world was introduced to the creative and innovative ways she approached mathematics. Maryam’s work was almost entirely visual and I am sure the originality in her approach to problems was part of the reason other mathematicians have spoken about Maryam connecting previously unconnected areas of mathematics. The president of Iran said that Maryam’s presence as a creative scientist was a turning point in introducing Iranian women and youth to mathematics and science. Maryam was a turning point for women and girls all over the world. A few months ago we held a workshop for middle school girls at Stanford, I discussed the workshop with Maryam before-hand and we agreed that I would share her photos and ideas – many of the girls came up to me afterwards and said that learning about Maryam changed everything for them.
There are many reasons Maryam is inspirational for young people, especially girls and young women –
First the mathematics she worked on was visual and creative. So many people believe that maths is all about numbers and rules – because of the faulty and narrow ways it is taught – but Maryam’s mathematics was not about numbers, it was about visual patterns and ideas.
Maryam shared that she approached maths problems as detective work, of needing to solve an intriguing puzzle. She talked about her fascination of looking at the same problem from different perspectives and approaching it using different methods. This, I know, is the most inspirational part of mathematics for learners – when we celebrate different ways of seeing mathematics and different ways of approaching problems it changes everything for learners, so the value of hearing one of the world’s top mathematicians talking about the multiplicity of ideas and methods is immeasurable.
Second Maryam shared publicly that she struggled with maths as a child – as everyone does – and was even told by her 6th grade teacher that she was not good at maths. Fortunately for the world she met teachers who believed in her later in her life, including the mathematician Yahya Tabesh who was Maryam’s University mentor and who works with us at youcubed. So many students with amazing potential get the message that they are not good at maths, and can never be good at maths. To know of someone who received that negative message, as a young girl and went on to be one of the most successful mathematicians in the world is inspiring for others.
Third Maryam talked about how she works slowly with maths – which breaks another myth that holds students up and makes them think that they cannot do maths. She talked about working slowly and deeply, which is a really important approach to mathematics but one that is believed by many to be inappropriate and not allowed.
There was so much about Maryam as a person and the way Maryam approached mathematics – as a deep, creative, puzzling endeavor – that was and will always be inspirational for others. When Maryam asked me to chair the PhD defense of one of her students I was given the opportunity to meet a person Maryam had mentored, Jenya Sapir, and see the visual, creative mathematics that they worked on together, in depth. The questions Jenya and Maryam worked on were new to mathematics and even the mathematicians on the PhD panel were challenged and puzzled by the intriguing work. A few times in the defense the mathematicians asked Jenya a question, she thought for a while and answered: I don’t know. The mathematicians then all agreed that they did not know the answer to their question either. This was fascinating to me as it reflects the nature of true mathematics – an unexplored terrain of unanswered questions. This is what was so exciting about Maryam’s work, she was asking questions no one had ever asked and using creative visual thinking to answer them and to inspire others to do the same.
Maryam’s young life was cut tragically short, but her work and her vision will always stay with us. She inspires me in my work and she will continue to inspire all students and teachers who believe in beautiful, visual, mathematics that can be seen and solved in different ways. Maryam may have been taken from us but her light will continue to shine on mathematics – eternally.
Hear Jo talking about Maryam on BBC Radio: