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Maryam Mirzakhani, Stanford mathematician and Fields Medal winner, dies

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Stanford mathematics Professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and to-date only female winner of the Fields Medal since its inception in 1936, died Friday, July 14, after a long battle with cancer. Mirzakhani was 40 years old.

By Andrew Myers and Bjorn Carey

Stanford mathematics Professor Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and to-date only female winner of the Fields Medal since its inception in 1936, died Friday, July 14. She had been battling breast cancer since 2013; the disease spread to her liver and bones in 2016. Mirzakhani was 40 years old.

Professor Maryam Mirzakhani was the recipient of the 2014 Fields Medal, the top honor in mathematics. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford News Service)

The quadrennial Fields Medal, which Mirzakhani won in 2014, is the most prestigious award in mathematics, often equated in stature with the Nobel Prize. Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry.

Mastering these approaches allowed Mirzakhani to pursue her fascination for describing the geometric and dynamic complexities of curved surfaces – spheres, doughnut shapes and even amoebas – in as great detail as possible. Her work was highly theoretical in nature, but it could have impacts concerning the theoretical physics of how the universe came to exist and, because it could inform quantum field theory, secondary applications to engineering and material science. Within mathematics, it has implications for the study of prime numbers and cryptography.

Mirzakhani joined the faculty of Stanford University in 2008, where she served as a professor of mathematics until her death.

“Maryam is gone far too soon, but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne. “Maryam was a brilliant mathematical theorist, and also a humble person who accepted honors only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path. Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring, and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world.”

Despite the breadth of applications of her work, Mirzakhani said she enjoyed pure mathematics because of the elegance and longevity of the questions she studied.

A self-professed “slow” mathematician, Mirzakhani’s colleagues describe her as ambitious, resolute and fearless in the face of problems others would not, or could not, tackle. She denied herself the easy path, choosing instead to tackle thornier issues. Her preferred method of working on a problem was to doodle on large sheets of white paper, scribbling formulas on the periphery of her drawings. Her young daughter described her mother at work as “painting.”

“You have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math,” she told one reporter.

In another interview, she said of her process: “I don’t have any particular recipe [for developing new proofs]. … It is like being lost in a jungle and trying to use all the knowledge that you can gather to come up with some new tricks, and with some luck you might find a way out.

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, Iran, and – by her own estimation – was fortunate to come of age after the Iran-Iraq war when the political, social and economic environment had stabilized enough that she could focus on her studies. She dreamed of becoming a writer, but mathematics eventually swept her away.

She attended an all-girls high school in Tehran, led by a principal unbowed by the fact that no girl had ever competed for Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad team. Mirzakhani first gained international recognition during the 1994 and 1995 competitions. In 1994, she earned a gold medal. In 1995, she notched a perfect score and another gold medal.

After graduating college at Sharif University in Tehran, she headed to graduate school at Harvard University, where she was guided by Curtis McMullen, a fellow Fields Medal winner. At Harvard, Mirzakhani was distinguished by her determination and relentless questioning, despite the language barrier. She peppered her professors with questions in English. She jotted her notes in Farsi.

McMullen described Mirzakhani as filled with “fearless ambition.” Her 2004 dissertation was a masterpiece. In it, she solved two longstanding problems. Either solution would have been newsworthy in its own right, according to Benson Farb, a mathematician at the University of Chicago, but then Mirzakhani connected the two into a thesis described as “truly spectacular.” It yielded papers in each of the top three mathematics journals.

“The majority of mathematicians will never produce something as good,” Farb said at the time. “And that’s what she did in her thesis.”

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the “unprecedented brilliance of this creative scientist and modest human being, who made Iran’s name resonate in the world’s scientific forums, was a turning point in showing the great will of Iranian women and young people on the path towards reaching the peaks of glory … in various international arenas,” according to Iranian state media.

“What’s so special about Maryam, the thing that really separates her, is the originality in how she puts together these disparate pieces,” said Steven Kerckhoff, at the time of her Fields Medal award. Kerckhoff is a professor at Stanford who works in the same area of mathematics. “That was the case starting with her thesis work, which generated several papers in all the top journals. The novelty of her approach made it a real tour de force.”

After her doctorate at Harvard, Mirzakhani accepted a position as assistant professor at Princeton University and as a research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute before joining the Stanford faculty.

“Maryam was a wonderful colleague,” said Ralph L. Cohen, the Barbara Kimball Browning Professor of Mathematics at Stanford. “She  not only was a brilliant and fearless researcher, but she was also a great teacher and terrific PhD adviser.  Maryam embodied what being a mathematician or scientist is all about:  the attempt to solve a problem that hadn’t been solved before, or to understand something that hadn’t been understood before.  This is driven by a deep intellectual curiosity, and there is great joy and satisfaction with every bit of success. Maryam had one of the great intellects of our time, and she was a wonderful person.  She will be tremendously missed.”

In recent years, she collaborated with Alex Eskin at the University of Chicago to answer a mathematical challenge that physicists have struggled with for a century: the trajectory of a billiard ball around a polygonal table. That investigation into this seemingly simple action led to a 200-page paper which, when it was published in 2013, was hailed as “the beginning of a new era” in mathematics and “a titanic work.”

“You’re torturing yourself along the way,” she would offer, “but life isn’t supposed to be easy.”

Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrák, and a daughter, Anahita.

The university will organize a memorial service and an academic symposium in her honor in the fall, when students and faculty have returned to campus.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said she died on July 15.  Mirzakhani died on Friday, July 14.

Yazd city inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage

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UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ― designated eleven new sites on Sunday and may continue to do so throughout next week until the annual World Heritage Committee meeting ends on July 12. 

The ancient city of Yazd in Iran is one of UNESCO’s new World Heritage Sites. The City of Yazd is located in the middle of the Iranian plateau, close to the Spice and Silk Roads. It bears living testimony to the use of limited resources for survival in the desert. Water is supplied to the city through a qanat system developed to draw underground water. The earthen architecture of Yazd has escaped the modernization that destroyed many traditional earthen towns, retaining its traditional districts, the qanat system, traditional houses, bazars, hammams, Zoroastrian temples and the historic garden of Dolat-abad.

Seljuk sultans bath discovered in Anatolia

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Hurriyet Daily News (Turkey) reports that A bath used by the Seljuk sultans 1,000 years ago” has been found in Gevele Castle on Takkeli Mountain, located in central Anatolia. The bath water was heated with a furnace and circulated through gaps in the lower part of the bath. “We did not expect to find such a structure,” said Ahmet Çayci of Necmettin Erbakan University The team also found private rooms that may have been used for washing. Gevele Castle is known for its small mosque, cistern, tunnels, and dungeons. . “The castle should have a view terrace and the venues where the sultan was hosted,” Çayci added. “We are continuing to search for it.”

International World Population Day

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In 1989, the Governing Council of the United Nations Development Programme recommended that 11 July be observed by the international community as World Population Day, a day to focus attention on the urgency and importance of population issues. This year’s theme is “Family Planning: Empowering People, Developing Nations.”

Access to safe, voluntary family planning is a human right. It is also central to gender equality and women’s empowerment, and is a key factor in reducing poverty.

Yet around the world, some 214 million women in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and effective family planning methods, for reasons ranging from lack of access to information or services to lack of support from their partners or communities. Many of those with an unmet demand for contraceptives live in the poorest countries on earth.

Investments in making family planning available also yields economic and other gains that can propel development forward.

This year’s World Population Day, 11 July, coincides with the Family Planning Summit, the second meeting of the FP2020–Family Planning 2020–initiative, which aims to expand access to voluntary family planning to 120 million additional women by 2020.

900-Year-Old Collection of Women’s Jewelry

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A 900-year-old collection of women’s jewelry has been discovered in the kitchen of a Crusader fortress tower in the central Israeli city of Modi’in, during an archaeological excavation at Tittora Hill.
Several of the ancient rings, bracelets and earrings that were found were made of bronze and silver.

According to Avraham Tendler, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) excavation director, the jewelry “appear[s] to have been accidentally dropped during cooking in the kitchen of an ancient tower.”

The archaeological dig is part of a joint initiative between the IAA and the Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut Municipality. The project brings together some 2,500 schoolchildren, long-time residents of the town and local volunteers for the opportunity to collaborate in discovering their city’s cultural heritage

 

DNA reveals genetic history of ancient Egyptians

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A recent finding that the ancient Egyptians and their modern counterparts share less – genetically – in common than you might think has been very intriguing to researchers and archeologists. A team of scientists from the University of Tuebingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, both in Germany, have decoded the genome of ancient Egyptians for the first time, with unexpected and surprising results. Their findings were recently published in the journal of Nature Communications.

Their study concluded that preserved remains found in Abusir-el Meleq, Middle Egypt, were closest genetic relatives of Neolithic and Bronze Age populations from the Near East, Anatolia and Eastern Mediterranean Europeans. On the other hand, modern Egyptians, by comparison, share much more DNA with sub-Saharan populations. These new findings are not only intriguing but also have created major questions and re-evaluation of the region’s history and migration patterns.

It is important to note that ancient Egyptians have experienced more investigation and studies than any other ancient civilization.  However, extracting genome data and utilizing this type of incredibly modern technology is a new frontier for Egyptologists.  In this recently published study, scientists took 166 bone samples from 151 mummies, dating from approximately 1400 B.C. to A.D. 400, extracting DNA from 90 individuals and mapping the full genome in three cases.  Previous DNA analysis of mummies has been treated with a necessary dose of skepticism, according to Professor Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute.   We know that heat and high humidity in tombs, paired with some of the chemicals involved in mummification, all contribute to DNA degradation, but the paper describes its findings as “the first reliable data set obtained from ancient Egyptians” as reported by CNN and other international news outlets.

Next researchers looked for genetic differences compared with Egyptians today. They found that the sample set showed a strong connection with a cluster of ancient non-African populations based east of the Mediterranean Sea.  The researchers describe the new findings as incredibly far reaching as the DNA is not just telling us about one person but about the ancestors and parents.

The scientists report that this period covered the rule of Alexander the Great (332-323 B.C.), the Ptolemaic dynasty (323-30 B.C.) and part of Roman rule (30 B.C.-A.D. 641) and they note that Strict social structures and legal incentives to marry along ethnic lines within these communities may have played a part in the Egyptians’ genetic continuity.  The researchers also reported that the modern Egyptians were found to “inherit 8% more ancestry from African ancestors” than the mummies studied the report cites increased mobility along the Nile, increased long-distance commerce and the era of the trans-Saharan slave trade as potential reasons why.

 

Bleaching of Coral Reefs

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A recent report on the condition of the world’s coral reefs last week was published and it was a mixture of good news and bad news but mostly bad news. As announced a few days ago, the good news of the report is that the global coral bleaching event that started in 2015 appears to be finished, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). However, the bad news, is that the 3 successive years of bleaching conditions damaged all but three of the 29 reefs that are listed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s World Heritage sites. The worse news is that the long term prognosis is not good. The real warning is that unless dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are implemented all these reefs will cease to host functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of the century.  That is a disastrous prediction for the planet.

It is important to understand that bleaching occurs when overly warm water leads corals to expel symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae. Without the colorful algae, which use photosynthesis to produce nutrients for themselves and their hosts, the corals turn white, or bleach. If the waters cool soon enough, algae return; if bleaching persists, the corals die – and that is what has been happening due to rising temperatures. Reefs are ecosystems that support more than a million marine species. And an estimated half billion people around the world rely on reefs for livelihoods from fishing and tourism. Therefore, these outcomes have major economic and social impact beyond the ecological and environmental impacts.

NOAA has been actively monitoring and recording their findings.  NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch uses satellite observations of sea surface temperatures and modeling to monitor and forecast when water temperatures rise enough to cause bleaching. According to Science magazine, in the most recent case, waters in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean basins began rising in mid-2014 and bleaching started in 2015. The 3-year duration of this latest event is unprecedented; previous periods of global bleaching came and went within a year.

Reefs can recover from bleaching, but it takes 15 to 25 years. The recent numbers show that 13 of the 29 World Heritage listed reefs were exposed to bleaching more than twice per decade between 1985 and 2013, that is, even before the latest bleaching event which killed significant numbers of corals on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef 2 years in a row according to Science magazine.

But even if CO2 emissions are curbed, reefs face challenges from climate change. The Paris Agreement sets the goal of holding the increase in the global average mean temperature to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels but calls for efforts to limit that increase to 1.5°C. The report states that any increase greater than 1.5°C will likely cause “severe degradation of the great majority of coral reefs.”  However, limiting the rise in atmospheric temperatures will at least give reefs some time to adapt.

Happy Tirgan Festival (July 4th)

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Tirgan is a major Iranian festival with a history that spans thousands of years. It is held on the 13th day of the month of Tir in the Iranian calendar (equivalent to the 4th of July). In ancient times, it was a ritual to celebrate Tishter, the goddess of rain. In Iranian mythology, it signifies the day when Arash, a national hero, acted to end the long wars between Iran and Turan and to settle a border that was acceptable to both countries. The two parties decided that Arash should ascend to the summit of Mount Damavand and shoot an arrow; wherever the arrow landed was to be the border between the two countries. Arash put all his strength into the arrow and, by sacrificing his life, broadened the Iranian border, giving peace and tranquility to his countrymen. It is interesting to note that his bow and arrow were presented to him by the Goddess Sapandarmazgan, the guardian of productivity and vitality. The myth clearly presents the Iranian love for peace and preservation of the environment. For thousands of years, Iranians have celebrated the occasion with happy festivities and games, instead of mourning for the hero. One tradition for youngsters is to throw water at each other, washing away the pain and sorrow brought to human life by Ahriman.

US Supreme Court to decide on Iran artifact case

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The US Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to decide on a long-running legal battle over whether Persian artifacts in Chicago museums can be seized as compensation for victims of a terror attack in Israel.

The court will have the final word in the more than decade-long saga between Iran and five US citizens, who blame the Islamic republic for its support of militant group Hamas.

The case highlights the difficulty for victims in obtaining judgments in their favor against sovereign states accused of supporting organizations considered by Washington to be terror groups.

The last decision in the case favored Tehran: a federal appeals court in Chicago ruled that the artifacts being kept at the Field Museum and at the University of Chicago were immune to seizure.

The case stems from a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem that was carried out by Hamas.

Five US citizens injured in the attack won a $71.5 million civil judgment against Iran because it provided material support and training to Hamas.

Among the artifacts were a collection of 2,500-year-old clay tablets bearing ancient cuneiform script which have been in the care of the University of Chicago since the 1930s.

The victims also sought to seize a collection of artifacts at the Field Museum which were purchased in 1945 from German archeologist Ernst Herzfeld.

Iran does not claim ownership of the collection, but the victims have argued that they do in fact belong to Iran because Herzfeld stole them and smuggled them out of the country.

The issue will be heard by the US Supreme Court in its next annual session beginning in October.

Ancient DNA Reveals Role of Near East and Egypt in Cat Domestication

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DNA found at archaeological sites reveals that the origins of our domestic cat are in the Near East and ancient Egypt. Cats were domesticated by the first farmers some 10,000 years ago. They later spread across Europe and other parts of the world via trade hub Egypt. The DNA analysis also revealed that most of these ancient cats had stripes: spotted cats were uncommon until the Middle Ages.

Five subspecies of the wildcat Felis silvestris are known today. All skeletons look exactly alike and are indistinguishable from that of our domestic cat. As a result, it’s impossible to see with the naked eye which of these subspecies was domesticated in a distant past. Paleogeneticist Claudio Ottoni and his colleagues from KU Leuven (University of Leuven) and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences set out to look for the answer in the genetic code. They used the DNA from bones, teeth, skin, and hair of over 200 cats found at archaeological sites in the Near East, Africa, and Europe. These remains were between 100 and 9,000 years old.

Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-06-ancient-dna-reveals-role-east.html#jCp