Unsung in the Muslim world

Source: Dawn News

July 31, 2017
The writer, a former foreign secretary and author, lectured in quantum physics (1965-69) at Punjab University.


MARYAM Mirzakhani, a mathematics genius, born in Iran, died of cancer on July 14, 2017, at the age of 40. In 2014, she was awarded the Fields Medal, an equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics. Known as the ‘Queen of Mathematics’, she was the first woman and first Muslim to receive this high honour. She broke the proverbial glass ceiling in the supposed male domain of mathematics.

To lose a great talent so soon is tragic. Her native Iran mourned her death and celebrated her accomplishments, as did much of the developed and academic world. Outside Iran, in the Islamic world, her loss was literally a nonevent. In Pakistan, she barely merited a mention in the print and electronic media. This too is tragic.

Mirzakhani made contributions in the wide field of complex geometry. The Fields Medal Award Committee had cited her work in “the dynamics and geometry of Reimann surfaces and their moduli spaces”. All this is beyond my grasp, because today’s mathematics is as far removed from that of the early 1960s when I did my Master’s in the subject as cell phones are from the analog telephone sets of that era. Mirzakhani had her early education at Farzanegan School and graduated in 1999 from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. She earned her PhD from Harvard in 2004 and taught at Princeton and Stanford. The Iranian education system deserves recognition for having institutions that can groom and produce a mathematician of Mirzakhani’s calibre.

With the death of mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, a light in the Muslim world has been extinguished.

In Pakistan, the British had left good institutions. I recall that in the chemistry department at the old campus of the Punjab University, my alma mater, there was a plaque with the inscription: “The Compton Effect Experiment was replicated here (1929)” — a foundational experiment of 1923 that led to the theory of quantum physics. We also produced brilliant scientists. Nobel laureate Dr Abdus Salam is a legend who inspired my generation of students. By the early 1960s, Pakistan had one of the largest pools of theoretical physicists anywhere in the developing world.

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