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Math prize winner Maryam Mirzakhani once wanted to be a writer

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Maryam Mirzakhani set aside her love of books for a love of mathematics
Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal, has a storyteller's instincts

This week Maryam Mirzakhani was named a winner of the Fields Medal, considered the equivalent to a Nobel Prize mathematics. One of four Fields Medal winners in 2014, she is the first woman to receive the award since it was launched in 1936.

Might she have given it all up to be a novelist? That's unlikely, but her past love of books and writing is notable for such a high-achieving scientist. Mirzakhani "grew up dreaming of becoming a writer," Businessweek reports. Quanta Magazine writes that as a child growing up in Iran, Mirzakhani told herself adventure stories.

Mirzakhani is now 37 and a professor at Stanford. Her work in the fields of geometry and dynamical systems was cited; she has resolved problems that have been unsolved for 20-30 years.

But there is a layer of storytelling involved, Quanta writes. She still writes elaborate stories in her mind. The high ambitions haven’t changed, but the protagonists have: They are hyperbolic surfaces, moduli spaces and dynamical systems. In a way, she said, mathematics research feels like writing a novel. 'There are different characters, and you are getting to know them better,' she said. 'Things evolve, and then you look back at a character, and it’s completely different from your first impression.'"

As a middle-school student, Mirzakhani discovered a street full of cheap bookstores and bought books at random. Her goal at one point was to read every book she could find.

Then she found a supportive teacher who encouraged her math skills and her illustrious career was begun.

“There are mathematicians that are brilliant at posing problems, and mathematicians that are brilliant at solving problems,” her Harvard adviser Curtis McMullen said. “Maryam is the rare mathematician who excels at both.”

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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