Maryam Mirzakhani, A Candle Illuminating The Dark
“Perhaps Mirzakhani’s most famous contribution, in tandem with her frequent collaborator Alex Eskin of the University of Chicago (and later with Amir Mohammadi as well), was the so-called “Magic Wand Theorem,” published in 2013. Painstakingly developed over several years by piecing together and extending the work of many other mathematicians, it offered a litmus test for determining the orbital dynamics of systems, given certain properties of the space housing them and any obstacles within. Very quickly, the theorem found applications to the billiard problem, the wind-tree puzzle, and the illumination problem (showing when patches of darkness are inevitable). Like magic, one could calculate the diffusion rates of a wide range of systems, given the overall shapes and configurations involved, instead of having to compute the individual trajectories.”
Only a few weeks ago, pioneering mathematician and the first (and only) woman to win the Fields Medal, Maryam Mirzakhani, tragically died of cancer at the young age of 40. Her brilliant work had applications to a huge variety of problems, from the periodic and/or chaotic motions of billiard balls to the question of designing a room that, even if completely covered by mirrors, could never be illuminated by a single candle. Her life and her work were cut short by disease, but the story of both is truly an inspiration, as well as a testament to the power of creative thinking and the capabilities of the human mind. The pursuit of knowledge knows no national, racial, or gendered borders, and Maryam Mirzakhani’s life was a testament to that.