What Makes a Mathematician?

The QC Math Team is hard at work building the fall curriculum. The Fields Medal winners this week prompted our team to think hard about what makes a mathematician, and how QC courses help to build students who appreciate mathematics.

Every four years the International Congress of the International Mathematics Union meets and will award the Fields Medal, the highest prize in mathematics, three or four mathematicians under the age of 40.

Among the three mathematicians who received the medal this week was the first woman in the medal’s history. Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian mathematician who is currently a professor at Stanford, received recognition for her work in geometry and dynamical systems.

Since the QC Math Team is currently comprised of two female mathematicians we can’t help but be excited by the fact that Maryam Mirzakhani is a woman, but we’ve been even more enthralled by reading about Mirzakhani, her background, and how she does her work in mathematics.

In a profile in Quanta Magazine:

Mirzakhani likes to describe herself as slow. Unlike some mathematicians who solve problems with quicksilver brilliance, she gravitates toward deep problems that she can chew on for years. “Months or years later, you see very different aspects” of a problem, she said. There are problems she has been thinking about for more than a decade. “And still there’s not much I can do about them,” she said.

Here at QC we’ve thought a lot about what makes a mathematician. Too often our students believe that a mathematician is someone who can solve math problems easily but we believe it is much more than that. We believe a mathematician is simply someone who works on and thinks about ideas in math. Our goal in every QC math course is to give students a taste of “chewing” on a deep problem. We present big ideas and lead students through the process of discovering the greatest concepts in mathematics.


QC students investigating the Pythgorean Theorem.

In the same article, Mirazakhani describes some part of her process of working through these big problems:

As she thinks about mathematics, Mirzakhani constantly doodles, drawing surfaces and other images related to her research. “She has these huge pieces of paper on the floor and spends hours and hours drawing what look to me like the same picture over and over,” . . .

Doodling helps her focus, Mirzakhani said. When thinking about a difficult math problem, “you don’t want to write down all the details,” she said. “But the process of drawing something helps you somehow to stay connected.” Mirzakhani said that her 3-year-old daughter, Anahita, often exclaims, “Oh, Mommy is painting again!” when she sees the mathematician drawing. “Maybe she thinks I’m a painter,” Mirzakhani said.

This also really rang true for how we approach math at QC. Math is so much more than just arithmetic, it is doodling, and building, and analyzing. All of our activities are built so they can be approached in many different ways based on the natural instinct of the student. In the end, we hope every student can draw, write an equation, and summarize what they found, but as Mirazakhani describes, the process is unique to each mathematician.


QC students investigating how ancient civilizations built right angles

We enjoyed learning more about Maryam Mirazakhani and recommend the Quanta profile mentioned above, as well as this article that describes all of the 2014 Fields Medal winners and encourage you to learn more about this wonderful mathematician.