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I am totally stunned to learn that Maryam Mirzakhani died today yesterday, aged 40, after a severe recurrence of the cancer she had been fighting for several years.  I had planned to email her some wishes for a speedy recovery after learning about the relapse yesterday; I still can’t fully believe that she didn’t make it.

My first encounter with Maryam was in 2010, when I was giving some lectures at Stanford – one on Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture, and another on random matrix theory.  I remember a young woman sitting in the front who asked perceptive questions at the end of both talks; it was only afterwards that I learned that it was Mirzakhani.  (I really wish I could remember exactly what the questions were, but I vaguely recall that she managed to put a nice dynamical systems interpretation on both of the topics of my talks.)

After she won the Fields medal in 2014 (as I posted about previously on this blog), we corresponded for a while.  The Fields medal is of course one of the highest honours one can receive in mathematics, and it clearly advances one’s career enormously; but it also comes with a huge initial burst of publicity, a marked increase in the number of responsibilities to the field one is requested to take on, and a strong expectation to serve as a public role model for mathematicians.  As the first female recipient of the medal, and also the first to come from Iran, Maryam was experiencing these pressures to a far greater extent than previous medallists, while also raising a small daughter and fighting off cancer.  I gave her what advice I could on these matters (mostly that it was acceptable – and in fact necessary – to say “no” to the vast majority of requests one receives).

Given all this, it is remarkable how productive she still was mathematically in the last few years.  Perhaps her greatest recent achievement has been her “magic wandtheorem with Alex Eskin, which is basically the analogue of the famous measure classification and orbit closure theorems of Marina Ratner, in the context of moduli spaces instead of unipotent flows on homogeneous spaces.  (I discussed Ratner’s theorems in this previous post.  By an unhappy coincidence, Ratner also passed away this month, aged 78.)  Ratner’s theorems are fundamentally important to any problem to which a homogeneous dynamical system can be associated (for instance, a special case of that theorem shows up in my work with Ben Green and Tamar Ziegler on the inverse conjecture for the Gowers norms, and on linear equations in primes), as it gives a good description of the equidistribution of any orbit of that system (if it is unipotently generated); and it seems the Eskin-Mirzakhani result will play a similar role in problems associated instead to moduli spaces.  The remarkable proof of this result – which now stands at over 200 pages, after three years of revision and updating – uses almost all of the latest techniques that had been developed for homogeneous dynamics, and ingeniously adapts them to the more difficult setting of moduli spaces, in a manner that had not been dreamed of being possible only a few years earlier.

Maryam was an amazing mathematician and also a wonderful and humble human being, who was at the peak of her powers.  Today was a huge loss for Maryam’s family and friends, as well as for mathematics.

[EDIT, Jul 16: New York times obituary here.]

[EDIT, Jul 18: New Yorker memorial here.]


The 2014 Fields medallists have just been announced as (in alphabetical order of surname) Artur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, Martin Hairer, and Maryam Mirzakhani (see also these nice video profiles for the winners, which is a new initiative of the IMU and the Simons foundation). This time four years ago, I wrote a blog post discussing one result from each of the 2010 medallists; I thought I would try to repeat the exercise here, although the work of the medallists this time around is a little bit further away from my own direct area of expertise than last time, and so my discussion will unfortunately be a bit superficial (and possibly not completely accurate) in places. As before, I am picking these results based on my own idiosyncratic tastes, and they should not be viewed as necessarily being the “best” work of these medallists. (See also the press releases for Avila, Bhargava, Hairer, and Mirzakhani.)

Artur Avila works in dynamical systems and in the study of Schrödinger operators. The work of Avila that I am most familiar with is his solution with Svetlana Jitormiskaya of the ten martini problem of Kac, the solution to which (according to Barry Simon) he offered ten martinis for, hence the name. (The problem had also been previously posed in the work of Azbel and of Hofstadter.) The problem involves perhaps the simplest example of a Schrödinger operator with non-trivial spectral properties, namely the almost Mathieu operator {H^{\lambda,\alpha}_\omega: \ell^2({\bf Z}) \rightarrow \ell^2({\bf Z})} defined for parameters {\alpha,\omega \in {\bf R}/{\bf Z}} and {\lambda>0} by a discrete one-dimensional Schrödinger operator with cosine potential:

\displaystyle (H^{\lambda,\alpha}_\omega u)_n := u_{n+1} + u_{n-1} + 2\lambda (\cos 2\pi(\theta+n\alpha)) u_n.

This is a bounded self-adjoint operator and thus has a spectrum {\sigma( H^{\lambda,\alpha}_\omega )} that is a compact subset of the real line; it arises in a number of physical contexts, most notably in the theory of the integer quantum Hall effect, though I will not discuss these applications here. Remarkably, the structure of this spectrum depends crucially on the Diophantine properties of the frequency {\alpha}. For instance, if {\alpha = p/q} is a rational number, then the operator is periodic with period {q}, and then basic (discrete) Floquet theory tells us that the spectrum is simply the union of {q} (possibly touching) intervals. But for irrational {\alpha} (in which case the spectrum is independent of the phase {\theta}), the situation is much more fractal in nature, for instance in the critical case {\lambda=1} the spectrum (as a function of {\alpha}) gives rise to the Hofstadter butterfly. The “ten martini problem” asserts that for every irrational {\alpha} and every choice of coupling constant {\lambda > 0}, the spectrum is homeomorphic to a Cantor set. Prior to the work of Avila and Jitormiskaya, there were a number of partial results on this problem, notably the result of Puig establishing Cantor spectrum for a full measure set of parameters {(\lambda,\alpha)}, as well as results requiring a perturbative hypothesis, such as {\lambda} being very small or very large. The result was also already known for {\alpha} being either very close to rational (i.e. a Liouville number) or very far from rational (a Diophantine number), although the analyses for these two cases failed to meet in the middle, leaving some cases untreated. The argument uses a wide variety of existing techniques, both perturbative and non-perturbative, to attack this problem, as well as an amusing argument by contradiction: they assume (in certain regimes) that the spectrum fails to be a Cantor set, and use this hypothesis to obtain additional Lipschitz control on the spectrum (as a function of the frequency {\alpha}), which they can then use (after much effort) to improve existing arguments and conclude that the spectrum was in fact Cantor after all!

Manjul Bhargava produces amazingly beautiful mathematics, though most of it is outside of my own area of expertise. One part of his work that touches on an area of my own interest (namely, random matrix theory) is his ongoing work with many co-authors on modeling (both conjecturally and rigorously) the statistics of various key number-theoretic features of elliptic curves (such as their rank, their Selmer group, or their Tate-Shafarevich groups). For instance, with Kane, Lenstra, Poonen, and Rains, Manjul has proposed a very general random matrix model that predicts all of these statistics (for instance, predicting that the {p}-component of the Tate-Shafarevich group is distributed like the cokernel of a certain random {p}-adic matrix, very much in the spirit of the Cohen-Lenstra heuristics discussed in this previous post). But what is even more impressive is that Manjul and his coauthors have been able to verify several non-trivial fragments of this model (e.g. showing that certain moments have the predicted asymptotics), giving for the first time non-trivial upper and lower bounds for various statistics, for instance obtaining lower bounds on how often an elliptic curve has rank {0} or rank {1}, leading most recently (in combination with existing work of Gross-Zagier and of Kolyvagin, among others) to his amazing result with Skinner and Zhang that at least {66\%} of all elliptic curves over {{\bf Q}} (ordered by height) obey the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture. Previously it was not even known that a positive proportion of curves obeyed the conjecture. This is still a fair ways from resolving the conjecture fully (in particular, the situation with the presumably small number of curves of rank {2} and higher is still very poorly understood, and the theory of Gross-Zagier and Kolyvagin that this work relies on, which was initially only available for {{\bf Q}}, has only been extended to totally real number fields thus far, by the work of Zhang), but it certainly does provide hope that the conjecture could be within reach in a statistical sense at least.

Martin Hairer works in at the interface between probability and partial differential equations, and in particular in the theory of stochastic differential equations (SDEs). The result of his that is closest to my own interests is his remarkable demonstration with Jonathan Mattingly of unique invariant measure for the two-dimensional stochastically forced Navier-Stokes equation

\displaystyle \partial_t u + (u \cdot \nabla u) = \nu \Delta u - \nabla p + \xi

\displaystyle \nabla \cdot u = 0

on the two-torus {({\bf R}/{\bf Z})^2}, where {\xi} is a Gaussian field that forces a fixed set of frequencies. It is expected that for any reasonable choice of initial data, the solution to this equation should asymptotically be distributed according to Kolmogorov’s power law, as discussed in this previous post. This is still far from established rigorously (although there are some results in this direction for dyadic models, see e.g. this paper of Cheskidov, Shvydkoy, and Friedlander). However, Hairer and Mattingly were able to show that there was a unique probability distribution to almost every initial data would converge to asymptotically; by the ergodic theorem, this is equivalent to demonstrating the existence and uniqueness of an invariant measure for the flow. Existence can be established using standard methods, but uniqueness is much more difficult. One of the standard routes to uniqueness is to establish a “strong Feller property” that enforces some continuity on the transition operators; among other things, this would mean that two ergodic probability measures with intersecting supports would in fact have a non-trivial common component, contradicting the ergodic theorem (which forces different ergodic measures to be mutually singular). Since all ergodic measures for Navier-Stokes can be seen to contain the origin in their support, this would give uniqueness. Unfortunately, the strong Feller property is unlikely to hold in the infinite-dimensional phase space for Navier-Stokes; but Hairer and Mattingly develop a clean abstract substitute for this property, which they call the asymptotic strong Feller property, which is again a regularity property on the transition operator; this in turn is then demonstrated by a careful application of Malliavin calculus.

Maryam Mirzakhani has mostly focused on the geometry and dynamics of Teichmuller-type moduli spaces, such as the moduli space of Riemann surfaces with a fixed genus and a fixed number of cusps (or with a fixed number of boundaries that are geodesics of a prescribed length). These spaces have an incredibly rich structure, ranging from geometric structure (such as the Kahler geometry given by the Weil-Petersson metric), to dynamical structure (through the action of the mapping class group on this and related spaces), to algebraic structure (viewing these spaces as algebraic varieties), and are thus connected to many other objects of interest in geometry and dynamics. For instance, by developing a new recursive formula for the Weil-Petersson volume of this space, Mirzakhani was able to asymptotically count the number of simple prime geodesics of length up to some threshold {L} in a hyperbolic surface (or more precisely, she obtained asymptotics for the number of such geodesics in a given orbit of the mapping class group); the answer turns out to be polynomial in {L}, in contrast to the much larger class of non-simple prime geodesics, whose asymptotics are exponential in {L} (the “prime number theorem for geodesics”, developed in a classic series of works by Delsart, Huber, Selberg, and Margulis); she also used this formula to establish a new proof of a conjecture of Witten on intersection numbers that was first proven by Kontsevich. More recently, in two lengthy papers with Eskin and with Eskin-Mohammadi, Mirzakhani established rigidity theorems for the action of {SL_2({\bf R})} on such moduli spaces that are close analogues of Ratner’s celebrated rigidity theorems for unipotently generated groups (discussed in this previous blog post). Ratner’s theorems are already notoriously difficult to prove, and rely very much on the polynomial stability properties of unipotent flows; in this even more complicated setting, the unipotent flows are no longer tractable, and Mirzakhani instead uses a recent “exponential drift” method of Benoist and Quint as a substitute. Ratner’s theorems are incredibly useful for all sorts of problems connected to homogeneous dynamics, and the analogous theorems established by Mirzakhani, Eskin, and Mohammadi have a similarly broad range of applications, for instance in counting periodic billiard trajectories in rational polygons.