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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Woman Wins ‘Math Nobel’ For First Time

Iranian-born Stanford mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani is among the four winners of the Fields Medal. (Courtesy of Maryam Mirzakhani)

Iranian-born Stanford mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani is among the four winners of the Fields Medal. (Courtesy of Maryam Mirzakhani)

For the first time ever, a woman has won the Fields Medal. Iranian-born Stanford mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani is among the four winners of what is often referred to as the Nobel Prize of mathematics.

“It’s absolutely huge,” Keith Devlin, a mathematician and co-founder and director of Stanford’s H-Star Institute, told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson of the first female win. “The role model that Maryam represents to young women all over the world is phenomenal.”

He hopes that Mirzakhani’s win will be a real “eye-opener” for more women to get involved in mathematics.

“Everyone then knows, ‘I can do that too’,” he said. “This is really dramatic in providing inspiration to young people all over the world that they too can aspire and achieve what she’s achieved.”

“It’s just a matter of time before more women will do it.”

It’s been a long struggle for women to succeed in mathematics, a field traditionally dominated by men. Devlin cites that only about 30 percent of graduate students in the U.S. in mathematics are female.

“It’s just a matter of time before more women will do it,” he said. His daughters are a prime example. “Society’s pressures sort of forced them to hide the fact that they had skills in mathematics and science. The world works like that. It’s a sad thing and we’re trying to overcome it.”

Devlin sees Mirzakhani’s win as a real “it can be done” moment.

When asked to explain the math that Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal for, Devlin responded with laughter.

“You know, its the nature of the Fields medals that the people that win them do it for doing extremely groundbreaking work. So, not only is it hard — and almost impossible — to explain it to a general audience, it’s hard for someone like myself who has spent a career in mathematics to really know what they’ve done,” he admitted.

The Fields Medal is often viewed as the highest accolade that a mathematician can receive.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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