Convergent Series

learning, using & teaching metal clay, and other aspects of life

On another note: Maryam Mirzakhani wins Fields Medal

Posted by C Scheftic on 2014/08/18

Several math-related things caught my attention in the news last week. One involved a change in how silver prices would be “computed” and I thought maybe I’d write a little note about that.

But, instead, I’m going to add a note here because the Iran-born, female, geometer Maryam Mirzakhani won a Fields Medal. As a teenager, she won gold medals in the 1994 and 1995 International Math Olympiads and headed off to college … a decade after I’d finished grad school, and just before I became (in the summer of 1995) a Member of the Technical Staff at the (now defunct) Geometry Center.

“Geom” was a really wonderful little mathematics research and development center at the University of Minnesota, funded for several years through the Science & Technology Centers program of the National Science Foundation. It had a great, unified, mathematics computing environment that supported math and computer science research, mathematical visualization, software development, application development, video animation production, and K-16 math education. On the wall in my studio now I have a group of four posters from my old math-days: two that used computer algebra systems (Maple; Mathematica) from my work before moving to Geom, and two specifically about Geometry Center projects (tiling space with triangles; knots and hyperbolic space). Farther down the wall, I also have one of Escher’s Metamorphose prints (the one that comes in four parts); that one was a gift from a long-tine friend, Donna, who was in school with me (two different universities, just by coincidence!) both as an undergraduate (when she studied physics) and during grad school (after she had switched to computer science).

When people come to my studio and ask, “how long have you been doing this?” of course, what makes that a bit of a challenge to the answer is, “what’s ‘this’?” Depending on how much detail I sense the questioner wants (which I may or may not sense correctly, of course), I may talk about when I started in this powder-metallurgy medium, or when I started as simply a hobbyist in other art-forms before that and how some of those were more or less visual than my current one (e.g., radio theatre was a different creative outlet I followed, for over a decade…), but I eventually point to those four posters and say, “But that’s the kind of visualization I did for decades, to earn my living.”

Now the exact image from the Not Knot poster (shown here) was made, not by me, but by Charlie Gunn for the video of the same name. Another of the posters shows an image, by Scott Kim using Mathematica, of five interlocking tetrahedra … that makes the Rio Rewards PMC Certification silver tetrahedron project look simple by comparison…! But I was using the exact same tools to create the same and similar images, and researching how visualization might help students to understand the concepts involved.

So how does any of this tie back to Maryam Mirzakhani, other than that she has worked on “geometric objects whose points each represent a different hyperbolic surface” and, more recently, on “the symmetry of surface geometry”? Well, as I was going through school, I know I was repeatedly told by male teachers and classmates that I was OK at mathematics, where OK was often clearly intended to mean something like, “better than most girls I know, but watch out because this really is a field for guys.” (Not always, of course; but often enough to be discouraging. Donna would talk about hearing similar tones about her work.) In fact, one of the major reasons I went down the path of trying to understand how students learned math and how high school and college teachers might better teach it was because I wanted (I’m about to end this by mixing a whole bunch of metaphors: sorry!) to help level the playing field in mathematics by raising the tide for everyone, male and female. I just hope that, at last, having a woman earn a Fields Medal will be another step down that same path, and will encourage more young women to follow it too. It really can be fun and, now, rewarding too!

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