The Fields Medal, officially known as the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics, is given out every four years to up to four mathematicians under the age of 40.
Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani is the first female winner out of all the 52 previous recipients of the prize. She’s a professor at Stanford University in California, US, and an expert on the behaviour of dynamical systems.
As Dana Mackenzie from New Scientist explains, she “studies the geometry of moduli space, a complex geometric and algebraic entity that might be described as a universe in which every point is itself a universe.”
The other winners this year are Artur Avila, a researcher in a dynamical systems from the National Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics in Brazil and the National Centre for Scientific Research in France; Manjul Bhargava from Princeton University in the US, who was recognised for new methods in the geometry of numbers; and Martin Hairer of the University of Warwick in England, who studies the effect of random noise on partial differential equations, which includes the effect of turbulence on ocean currents or the flow of air around airplane wings.
It’s a fantastic achievement for all the winners, but given that 70 percent of the PhDs in mathematics still go to men, this is also good news for the field.
“This is a great honour. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” Mirzakhani said in a Stanford University press release. “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
Ingrid Daubechies, a professor of mathematics at Duke University in North Carolina, US, and president of the International Mathematical Union, which awards the Medal, told Kenneth Chang from the New York Times over email:
“All researchers in mathematics will tell you that there is no difference between the math done by a woman or a man, and of course the decision of the Fields Medal committee is based only on the results of each candidate … That said, I bet the vast majority of the mathematicians in the world will be happy that it will no longer be possible to say that ‘the Fields Medal has always been awarded only to men.’”