Secrets of the surface: An inspiring story of passion and tenacity

Feb. 21, 2023, 12:08 a.m.

Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani was a pioneer for women in STEM professions. She broke down barriers and challenged stereotypes by excelling in a field that has historically been dominated by men. Her success has shown young women that they can pursue their passions and excel in any field, regardless of their gender.

“Secrets of the Surface: The Mathematical Vision of Maryam Mirzakhani” is a documentary film directed by George Csicsery that explores the life and work of Mirzakhani as the first woman and first Iranian to win the prestigious Fields Medal for mathematics. Overall, it offers a fascinating glimpse into the legacy of a remarkable mathematician.

The film was played at the Bechtel International Center on Thursday night as part of the Stanford Arts Camera as Witness (CAW) Program’s REFLECTIONS series, which celebrated the United Nations’ International Day of Women and Girls in Science. After the screening, a Q&A took place with filmmaker Csicsery, student inventor Tahoura Nedaee ’25 and Stanford postdoctoral scholar Maddie Weinstein. Jasmina Bojic, CAW Program Director and founder of the international documentary film festival UNAFF, moderated the event.

The documentary starts by tracing Mirzakhani’s childhood in Iran, where she attended Farzanegan School in Tehran. At the highly selective high school for gifted girls, she showed an early aptitude for mathematics and a passion for problem-solving. It then follows her journey to the United States — she earned her undergraduate degree at Sharif University in Tehran and her Ph.D. at Harvard University under the mentorship of Curtis McMullen, a Fields Medalist himself. She would later become a professor at Stanford University.

The film delves into Mirzakhani’s groundbreaking research in the field of hyperbolic geometry and her contributions to the study of moduli spaces, which have had a significant impact on many areas of mathematics. Importantly, it succeeds at presenting complex mathematical concepts in a way accessible to a broad audience. The film depicts mathematics not just as a set of abstract ideas, but as a way of thinking and problem-solving that can be applied to real-world problems. Through stunning visualizations of mathematical concepts, it shows how mathematics can be used to create beautiful and intricate patterns.

Another important aspect of the film is its exploration of Mirzakhani’s personal life with her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field and her battle with breast cancer. Despite the challenges she faced, she remained dedicated to her work, and eventually inspired other mathematicians with her ability and tenacity.

By showcasing Mirzakhani’s story, the film effectively demonstrates the importance of promoting diversity in mathematics and science. Interviews with female mathematicians further illustrate the challenges that women and minorities face in the field.

Csicsery cited Mirzakhani’s character and life as his primary inspirations while filming.  Her passion and perseverance culminated in some profound interactions with those who knew her. This was reflected in the film. For instance, it was incredibly powerful to witness her longtime friend and coauthor Alex Eskin feel moved to tears while reminiscing about her; it was a very emotional moment.

Eskin has spoken publicly about the close friendship and collaboration they shared. After Mirzakhani’s untimely death in 2017, Eskin wrote a touching tribute to her, in which he describes meeting her as an amazing experience. Eskin said, “she was obviously brilliant, but she was also the nicest and most positive person I have ever met.”

Nedaee, who is studying biomedical computation and philosophy on a pre-med track, studied at one of the Farzanegan schools in Iran. Describing Mirzakhani’s legacy in the school, she said, “we were always so inspired by her, and how she did not let any limitations hinder her from doing anything that she wanted.”

Nedaee added, “While she studied there a long time ago, the impact she left there continues to be tremendously motivating for both other people and me.”

Maryam Mirzakhani was renowned for her humility, kindness and commitment to her work. She was a role model not only for her intellectual achievements but also for her character and values. The depiction of Mirzakhani’s life and career in “Secrets of the Surface” extends and cements her influence, serving as an inspiration for young women to pursue their passions, work hard and make a positive impact on the world.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Login or create an account