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Obituary | Parviz Shahriari, Mathematician and Activist, Dies at 85

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI

17 May 2012 04:48Comments

A major figure in Iranian education, jailed under the Shah and the Islamic Republic alike.

ParvizShahriariPortrait.jpg [ obituary ] Parviz Shahriari, mathematician, educator, translator, journalist, and political activist, passed away on May 11. Those Iranians who grew up between the 1950s and the 1990s and were mathematically inclined are very familiar with Shahriari and his achievements through the many books and articles he wrote and translated, and the several scientific journals that he founded and edited for decades. I am personally indebted to him. I loved his stimulating writing on mathematics and science, and studied his works during my high school years and undergraduate studies at the University of Tehran. I still have some of his books.

Shahriari was born into a Zoroastrian family on November 23, 1926, in the south-central province of Kerman. (Zoroastrianism was Iran's dominant religion before Islam.) His father, a peasant, passed away when Parviz was very young, leaving his mother, Golestan Shahriari, to raise him and his two brothers, Sohrab and Hormoz. Shahriari studied at Iranshahr High School in the provincial capital of Kerman; after finishing the ninth grade, he enrolled in a special collegiate prep school, Daneshsara-ye Moghaddamati. He graduated in 1944 and moved to Tehran. Although he wanted to study at the University of Tehran's Faculty of Engineering, he realized that he could get into the school only through its Faculty of Sciences. He was admitted with a major in mathematics; at the same time, he also studied at Daneshsara-ye Alee (Teachers College) and taught night classes. Though his studies were interrupted on a few occasions, he eventually graduated from the University of Tehran in 1954 with a degree in mathematics.

After teaching high school in Shiraz for a year, Shahriari returned to Tehran in 1955. He taught at the prestigious Andisheh school, at the University of Tehran's engineering school, and at Teachers College. He cofounded and taught at a teachers' academy in Araak. He also helped found two important high schools in Tehran, Khwarizmi High School for boys in 1960 and Marjan High School for girls the following year, which have educated three generations of Iranian youth.

Between 1956 and 1973, Shahriari was a leading figure in the scientific education of Iran's youth, and wrote and translated a large number of books on mathematics and its applications. He also authored significant works of philosophy and history, the first of which, Mazdak va Mazdakian (Mazdak and Mazdakists), published in 1948 concerned the life of Mazdak, perhaps the first proto-communist Iranian reformer, who was killed in the early sixth century.

Shahriari was also editor-in-chief of several scientific and intellectual magazines, including Andisheh Ma, Sokhan-e Elmi va Fanni, Danesh va Mardom, and Chista, which was founded in 1981 and is still being published. Sokhan-e Elmi va Fanni (Scientific and Technical Comments), which began publishing in 1962, in particular was very popular, but it folded in 1970. Shahriari explained the circumstances:

In February 1970 we had a catastrophe. A branch of the security apparatus [SAVAK] summoned me to one of its offices. They served tea and spoke to me very kindly, and had a "small" request: transfer the ownership of Sokhan-e Elmi to us. We will still say that you are the owner and editor-in-chief, but you will have no role in it. We will pay you 50,000 rials every month [a huge sum at the time]. This agreement should remain secret, they told me. I did not oppose it, but asked them to allow me to continue publishing it to the end of the [Iranian] year. Then, I put a note in the last issue of the magazine, published in April 1970, and declared that this was its last issue.

Shahriari, a secular leftist, was also active in politics. Involved with Marxist groups in the early 1940s, in 1945 he became a member of the Tudeh (Masses) Party, the pro-Moscow communist party. He worked under Ehsan Tabari (1917-89), a leftist intellectual and one of the party's founders. From 1946 to 1948, Shahriari was a member of the editorial board of the newspaper Ghiam-e Ma (Our Revolt). On February 6, 1948, there was an assassination attempt on Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi by Islamic fundamentalists, which provoked a large wave of arrests. Shahriari was arrested for the first time in April 1949 and imprisoned for three months. While in jail, he learned Russian, which he later used to translate some great Soviet books on mathematics into Persian. Indeed, while still in jail, he produced his first translated book, History of Arithmetics, and soon after published a collection of mathematics books for the first three years of high school.

He became editor-in-chief of the magazine Vohooman, whose last issue was published on August 19, 1953, the day a CIA-sponsored coup overthrew the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Shahriari was imprisoned again from December 1956 to March 1958, and a third time beginning in December 1975 when he was incarcerated for 45 days by the SAVAK's infamous Joint Committee to Fight Terrorism. The Islamic Republic imprisoned Shahriari as well -- from April 28, 1983, to July 22, 1984 -- presumably because of his connection with the Tudeh Party.

Shahriari received an award from the Ministry of Education in 1966 for his service to the nation. Many leading scientists and scholars participated in the celebration of his 75th birthday in 2001. The following year, the University of Kerman awarded him an honorary doctoral degree in mathematics. The administration of former President Mohammad Khatami founded a scientific foundation that was named in his honor, and in 2005 he was recognized as a chehreh-e mandegar-e elmi -- roughly, a scientific figure who will always be remembered.

Shahriari married Mozhdeh Behizadeh in 1955. They had five children, Shahriar -- a distinguished professor of mathematics at Pomona College in southern California -- Marjan, Mozhdeh, Shervin, and Toka. Marjan lost her life in a car accident in 1965 when she was only eight years old.

With his passing away, Iran lost a good son who played a deeply important role in the education of generations of Iranian youth. Undoubtedly, Shahriari was a shahriar (king) of mathematics in Iran, as well as a good human being who cared about people and pursued social justice.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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