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First and only woman to win coveted mathematics Fields Medal dies

Iranian-born mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman ever to win the prestigious Fields Medal, has died after a battle with cancer, aged 40. Her work added to our understanding of the symmetry of curved surfaces.

Friend Firouz Naderi announced Mirzakhani's death on Saturday on Instagram and relatives subsequently confirmed her death to the Mehr agency in Iran.

Stanford University in California - where she had been a professor since 2008 - didn't indicate where she died.

"A light was turned off today. It breaks my heart [...] gone far too soon," wrote Naderi, a former director of Solar Systems Exploration at NASA.

"A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife," he added in a subsequent post.

Mirzakhani had been battling cancer for four years. The disease finally spread to her bone marrow, Iranian media said.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne called Mirzakhani a brilliant theorist "who made enduring contributions and inspired thousands of women to pursue math and science."

The elegance of math

Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal- equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Mathematics for those under 40 - awarded by the International Congress of Mathematicians - in 2014.

The award recognized her original contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, particularly understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces such as spheres.

The obverse and reverse sides of a Fields Medal.

The obverse and reverse sides of a Fields Medal

"It is fun - like solving a puzzle or connecting the dots in a detective case," she said when she won the Fields Medal.

Mirzakhani enjoyed pure mathematics because of its "elegance and longevity," she said.

"It's like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out," she added.

Iran honors famous daughter

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Mirzakhani's "doleful passing" has caused "great sorrow," state media reported.

He praised the "unprecedented brilliance of this creative scientist and modest human being, who made Iran's name resonate in the world's scientific forums, (and) was a turning point in showing the great will of Iranian women and young people on the path towards reaching the peaks of glory ... in various international arenas."

Mirzakhani studied mathematics in Iran and earned a PhD degree from Harvard in 2004. She then taught at Princeton University before moving to Stanford in 2008.

She is survived by her husband and a daughter.

With or without hijab?

Iranian newspapers paid rich tribute to Mirzakhani following her death. Some even broke with tradition and published her picture without a hijab, which is mandatory for women in public since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Only ultra-conservative newspapers, Resalat and Keyhan, did not feature Mirzakhani's picture on front page, with the latter publishing an obituary in an inside page with the mathematician shown in hijab.

Liberal Iranians expressed grief over her passing because Mirzakhani represented a modern and positive picture of Iran.

"Her work and her scientific achievements are clearly beyond my understanding but from the little knowledge I have, I can see how immense her intelligence and works are," said Nima Zaare, a Tehran-based artist who drew a portrait of Mirzakhani following her Fields Medal win.

"Normally I don't do portraits, but I was greatly honored to draw such a genius. I was truly devastated when I heard the news of her death…" he added.

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jbh, tj (AFP, AP)

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