The Fields Medal, more commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize of mathematics, is a prestigious honor awarded every four years to “recognize outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement.” For the first time since the award’s inception more than 75 years ago, the recipient of the 2014 Fields Medal (also called the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics) was awarded to a female mathematician—Maryam Mirzakhani.
“This is a great honor. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians. I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years,” says Mirzakhani, a mathematics professor at Stanford University.
Mirzakhani received the award for her contributions in geometry and the symmetry of curved surfaces. Paul Cohen, the last Stanford recipient of the Fields Medal, won the award in 1966.
Who is Maryam Mirzakhani?
Mirzakhani has always excelled in academics. Born in 1977 in Tehran, Iran, she attended the National Organization for Development of Exceptional Talents (NODET), a special high school designated for gifted students. But Mirzakhani didn’t always enjoy math growing up.
As a young child, she dreamed of becoming a writer, but in high school she developed an interest in numbers after realizing that math is like “solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case,” a discovery that paved the way for her bright future.
In 1994, Mirzakhani was the first female Iranian student to win a gold medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad, a six-problem mathematical challenge that requires knowledge outside of the normal high school curriculum. The following year, she became the first Iranian student at the Olympiad to receive a perfect score, and the first to win two gold medals.
Past Winners of the Fields
While Mirzakhani is the first female to receive the Fields Medal, there have been other distinguishing moments throughout the history of the award. Established in 1936, here are some of the most noteworthy winners of the past.
In 1954, Jean-Pierre Serre won the Fields Medal at the tender age of 27. To this day, he remains the youngest recipient to ever win the award. Fast-forward to 1990, Edward Witten made history as the first and (so far) only physicist to win the Fields.
Even though the Fields is the highest honor a mathematician can receive, not everyone wants the publicity associated with such a prestigious award. In 2006, Grigori Perelman was awarded the medal for proving the Poincaré conjecture, but he subsequently refused it to avoid media attention.
Current Standings by Country and Academic Institution
As of 2014, the United States is the country with the most Fields medals (currently 12). The Soviet Union is the next highest (nine medalists) followed by France (eight medalists) and the United Kingdom (five medalists).
Princeton University has the most recipients (eight) of the Fields. University of Paris (seven) and the Institute for Advanced Study (six) are recognized for having the second and third most winners (respectively) of this esteemed award.
Photo courtesy of Heidelberg Laureate Forum.