Date: Aug 13, 2014 7:44 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: First female winner for Fields maths medal

From The BBC News [Science & Environment]
Tuesday, August 12, 2014. See
NOTE: Interesting video and photos are given at the website
First female winner for Fields maths medal

By Jonathan Webb
[Science reporter, BBC News]

An Iranian mathematician working in the US has
become the first ever female winner of the
celebrated Fields Medal.

In a landmark hailed as "long overdue", Prof
Maryam Mirzakhani was recognised for her work on
complex geometry.

Four of the medals were presented in Seoul at the
International Congress of Mathematicians, held
every four years.

Also among the winners was Prof Martin Hairer
from the University of Warwick, UK, whose work on
randomness could prove useful for climate

Awarded by a committee from the International
Mathematical Union (IMU), the Fields Medal is
regarded as something akin to a Nobel Prize for
maths. It was established by Canadian
mathematician John Fields and comes with a 15,000
Canadian dollar (£8,000) cash prize.

First awarded in 1936 and then every four years
since 1950, the medal is awarded to between two
and four researchers, who must be no older than
40, because Fields wanted to encourage the
winners to strive for "further achievement" as
well as recognise their success.

The other two medals were won by Dr Artur Avila,
a Brazilian mathematician who earned his PhD in
dynamical systems at the age of 21, and Prof
Manjul Bhargava, a Canadian-American number
theorist at Princeton University.

'Icing on the cake'

In becoming the very first female medallist, Prof
Mirzakhani - who teaches at Stanford University
in California - ends what has been a long wait
for the mathematics community.

Prof Dame Frances Kirwan, a member of the medal
selection committee from the University of
Oxford, pointed out that despite being viewed
traditionally as "a male preserve", women have
contributed to mathematics for centuries.

She noted that around 40% of maths undergraduates
in the UK are women, but that proportion declines
rapidly at PhD level and beyond.

"I hope that this award will inspire lots more
girls and young women, in this country and around
the world, to believe in their own abilities and
aim to be the Fields Medallists of the future,"
Prof Kirwan said.

Prof Sir John Ball, another British mathematician
and a former president of the IMU, agreed that
Prof Mirzakhani's win was "fantastically
important". Speaking to BBC News from the
congress in Seoul, South Korea, he said that a
female winner was overdue and that Prof
Mirzakhani is one of many brilliant women

He added that the committee had an unenviable job
choosing the winners. "These four are really
deserving of this recognition, but of course any
work at this level also builds on exceptional
work by other people."

Prof Mirzakhani's seminal research concerns
shapes called Riemann surfaces. These are
convoluted mathematical objects that can be
analysed using complex numbers - i.e. numbers
with real and imaginary parts.

In particular, she has studied "moduli spaces" of
these shapes, which map all of the possible
geometries of a Riemann surface into their own,
new space.

Prof Alison Etheridge, a lecturer in applied
mathematics at the University of Oxford, said she
was thrilled by the announcement.

"Women are doing so well now in mathematics that
this is just icing on the cake," Prof Etheridge
told the BBC. "It's the sort of thing which will
really catch the public's imagination - and as a
result I think it could have quite an impact on a
new generation."

Randomness in reality

Prof Etheridge is more familiar with the work of
the medallist from Warwick, Martin Hairer.

"I think Martin has done some of the most remarkable mathematics," she said.

"Traditionally, maths has been quite divided into
pure and applied. But what has happened over the
past decade or so, is that people have realised
that to do modern applied mathematics, you really
need a whole armoury of techniques from pure
mathematics - especially if you're going to take
account of random effects.

"What Martin's work does is it allows you to take
account of randomness in a way we just didn't
think was possible."

Prof Hairer's award is specifically for his
contribution to a particular type of equation,
known as a partial differential equation or PDE.
His theory allows mathematicians to predict how
physical processes will develop when they contain
elements of randomness.

A key example is modelling how the boundary
changes over time between two different
substances. Prof Terry Lyons, a colleague of Prof
Hairer's at Oxford, uses the example of the
interface between ash and paper, when a sheet is
slowly burning.

"But the sort of examples that it applies to in
the longer term are boundless," Prof Lyons added,
noting that climate science in particular was
"where it might end up".

"Martin has tackled a fundamental problem and
achieved a complete step-change in our
understanding of it."

'Ingenious and wonderful'

Caroline Series, a fellow maths professor at the
University of Warwick where Prof Hairer works,
said she was "utterly delighted" for her

"It's fantastic news for Warwick," she told the BBC.

Prof Series has also known Prof Mirzakhani and her work for some time.

"I came across her a long time ago when she was a
PhD student, and I was sent a preliminary draft
of her thesis. And I just read it in amazement -
it was beautiful.

"She took something that's been known for a
while, and she took a rather elaborate and hard
to understand identity between things, and she
just applied it in the most ingenious and
wonderful way."

Prof Series believes the first female Fields
winner is a rare talent, who has produced unique
and striking work.

"I'm quite genuine about that," she said. "I
almost never think that about bits of
SIDEBAR PHOTO AND VIDEO: Prof Maryam Mirzakhani
was given the Fields Medal for her work on
complex geometry
SIDEBAR: I think it could have quite an impact on a new generation"
Prof Alison Etheridge -- University of Oxford
SIDEBAR ILLUSTRATION: Prof Mirzakhani's winning
work relates to convoluted mathematical
constructions called Riemann surfaces - ALFRED
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Medallist Prof Martin Hairer is
an Austrian mathematician who teaches at the
University of Warwick, UK
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Prof Mirzakhani went to school
and university in Tehran before doing a PhD at
SIDEBAR ILLUSTRATION: Adding an account of
randomness to particular equations can help
explain the physical interaction between two
substances, like ash and paper in a smouldering
SIDEBAR PHOTO: The Fields medal is engraved with a likeness of Archimedes