New Year in Sydney

Best science award of 2014 | Day 135

Of course, recognitions for scientific achievement are handed out each year. Take the Nobel prizes, for example. This year the three science categories celebrated the blue light-emitting diode (LED) inventors in the field of physics, developers of fluorescence microscopy in chemistry, and discoverers of a positioning system in the brain in medicine.

But while the Nobels usually create the most buzz, there are other remarkable prizes out there, too. One such example is the Breakthrough Prize funded by some of the top technology entrepreneurs in the world. Granted in three categories – maths, life sciences and fundamental physics – it is the largest cash prize for any scientific work.

However, there was also a prize that usually doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it did this year. And the reason was interesting.

Best science award of 2014

Unless you’re well familiar with the field of mathematics, you might not know about the Fields Medal. This prize was established in 1936 by Canadian mathematician John Fields, and is awarded every four years by a committee from the International Mathematical Union. It is even regarded as the “Nobel Prize of Mathematics.”

Several mathematicians are awarded each time – at least two, but no more than four. They also have to be under 40 years old, because the award is meant to not also recognise the achievements of the recipients, but also encourage them to strive for success in the future, too.

While usually these awards hardly make headlines, this year it was different, because for the first time in the history of the Fields Medal it was awarded to a woman. Iranian mathematician, Stanford University Professor Maryam Mirzakhani received the award for her work in complex geometry, notably with one-dimensional shapes called Riemann surfaces.

Women have been contributing to mathematics for centuries, so the recognition of a female mathematician was long overdue, and welcome by the scientific community. It is bound to inspire young girls who might be giving in to the perception that maths is just “too hard for girls.”

While Prof Mirzakhani is the current face of women in mathematics, without doubt there will be more of them in the future, as the long-standing perception of a “men only” field is finally beginning to shift.

Hopefully in four years’ time there will be a new mathematician worthy of the award – who will also happen to be a woman.

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