Saturday July 15, 2017. When the news struck in the early morning, I was getting my desk and my drawing tools ready to do a graphic summary of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum 2016, where I participated as a postdoc. The news was a shock: Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to have been awarded the Fields Medal had died of cancer at age 40.
This event is tragic on many levels, and this is a huge loss for science. But while I was preparing to draw about the Heidelberg Forum, all I could think of was, the participants of the forum will never get to meet Maryam Mirzakhani. The motto of the event “Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation” will never include her, the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the biggest recognition in mathematics. I remembered the “next generation”, those young undergrads, graduate students and postdocs that I met in 2016, looking in awe at these laureates and showering them with questions about research and their life in academia. There was suddenly a sad hole in the idea of scientific events where young people meet senior researchers.
The mailing list of the European Women in Mathematics (EWM) became active with messages of condolences and soon the observation came about that the first woman to receive the Fields Medal was probably the first laureate to die so soon. Mirzakhani’s award was at the same time a recognition for the whole community of female mathematicians. The avalanche of publicity that came after her prize was good for mathematicians (perhaps not too good for her), because that led the media to talk about maths, and the under representation of women in maths. Her loss had touched in particular the community of women in maths. For me, hers was also a loss for the movement among scientists and artists that tries to highlight the role of drawings in the process of doing and communicating science.
As explained in this excellent interview in Quanta magazine, she often drew her maths constructions in big sheets of paper . “Doodling helps her focus” reads the interview. Drawing is often overlooked or not taken seriously by the academic community. Currently, outside our scholarly bubble, there is a boom of creative practices, like illustration and graphic design, where visualization is considered a powerful instrument for communicating (for ex. graphic facilitation). In academia, there is a growing number of initiatives pointing in that direction (for ex. ERCComics and Cartoon Science). The blog you area reading right now, The Rage of the Blackboard, is a modest contribution in that direction. Scientists do not seem to weigh the power of drawing as a tool, but there is such a big graphic component when we think science that we don’t notice. Mirzakhani did notice, and drew in big sheets of paper.
The impact of the achievements in her short-lived career makes her an icon. Now, we expect an avalanche of tributes and articles in the news and in math events. But Mirzakhani is not the only brilliant female mathematician out there, and meetings where young people are encouraged to exchange with established researchers would benefit immensely from inviting female laureates that are not necessarily Fields or Nobel prize winners. These gatherings could include among their speakers, for example, female winners of the EMS prize and equivalent prizes from other continents. Let us not wait patiently for another woman Fields medalist. Let us meet and learn from the brilliant women we have around us, and celebrate their achievements now. And perhaps, even doodle science together in big sheets of paper.