Four p.m. I was blinking out of my afternoon siesta and scrolling down my Twitter feed catching up on whatever I’d missed when an RT by Thony Christie caught me quite by surprise: “Mathematics genius Maryam Mirzakhani has passed away”. It really jolted me out of my reverie. I vaguely remembered her fair, soft face, a pair of blue eyes, from an image in the news from two, maybe three years ago.
Words from a Quanta profile flashed in my mind, another by The Guardian about her wanting to become a writer… Yet another by someone else more obscure about the significance of the moment. A woman had won the Fields Medal! Were we celebrating or ruing the fact that it had taken, what, eight decades? And then I felt that twinge of shame I – we? – have become so good at ignoring: how many Indian women mathematicians did I know? And how many mathematicians did I – again, we? – know outside of the rosters of various prizes?
What caught me by surprise was the outpouring of grief – by people I met over the course of the evening, by people on Facebook and Twitter, by people I never knew knew about Maryam Mirzakhani or any of her work. But they did, showing up as if crawling out of the woodwork. They knew her as a brilliant young mathematician. They spoke of her as an inspiration for millions of girls and even more mathematicians besides. They collectively called her loss tragic, shared articles and anecdotes, and revealed what little joy they had tucked away in August 2014.
In a sense, the experience was an affirmation that even if the world moved on, if readers and listeners seemed to not care as much when Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal, they would remember. It was as if people were looking out, noticing some souls out of the corner of their eyes, lodging their names in some corner of their memories, not airing them too much but preserving them, remembering, and mourning when they pass on.
Featured image credit: Stanford University.