Posted on 12 July 2014.
Seeker, Doer, Giver, Ponderer
James Simons has led a life of ferocious curiosity.
Making his fortune, he is now making his own major contributions for the future of America.
The following excerpt from the New York Times profiles Simons, the multi-billionaire scientist and hedge fund star who has won praise for his financial gifts to scientific research and his efforts to get children interested in math.
Simons, who has led a life full of twists and turns, successes and failures, has held up his life as example to young people of what perseverance and curiosity can accomplish.
James H. Simons likes to play against type.
He is a billionaire star of mathematics and private quantitative investment who often wins praise for his financial gifts to scientific research and programs to get children hooked on math.
But in his Manhattan office, high atop a Fifth Avenue building in the Flatiron district, he’s quick to tell of his career failings.
He was forgetful. He was demoted. He found out the hard way that he was terrible at programming computers.
“I’d keep forgetting the notation,” Dr. Simons said. “I couldn’t write programs to save my life.”
After that, he was fired.
His message is clearly aimed at young people: If I can do it, so can you.
Down one floor from his office complex is Math for America, a foundation he set up to promote math teaching in public schools. Nearby, on Madison Square Park, is the National Museum of Mathematics, or MoMath, an educational center he helped finance. It opened in 2012 and has had a quarter million visitors.
Dr. Simons, 76, laughs a lot. He talks of “the fun” of his many careers, as well as his failings and setbacks. In a recent interview, he recounted a life full of remarkable twists, including the deaths of two adult children, all of which seem to have left him eager to explore what he calls the mysteries of the universe.
“I can’t help it,” he said of the science he finances. “It’s very exciting.”
Jeff Cheeger, a mathematician at New York University who studied with him a half century ago at Princeton, described Dr. Simons’s career as “mind-boggling.”
Dr. Simons received his doctorate at 23; advanced code breaking for the National Security Agency at 26; led a university math department at 30; won geometry’s top prize at 37; founded Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, at 44; and began setting up charitable foundations at 56.
This year, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an elite body that Congress founded during Lincoln’s presidency to advise the federal government.
With a fortune estimated at $12.5 billion, Dr. Simons now runs a tidy universe of science endeavors, financing not only math teachers but hundreds of the world’s best investigators, even as Washington has reduced its support for scientific research. His favorite topics include gene puzzles, the origins of life, the roots of autism, math and computer frontiers, basic physics and the structure of the early cosmos.
“He’s very ambitious,” said Edward Witten, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. “He can have a big impact.”
Working closely with his wife, Marilyn, the president of the Simons Foundation and an economist credited with philanthropic savvy, Dr. Simons has pumped more than $1 billion into esoteric projects as well as retail offerings like the World Science Festival and a scientific lecture series at his Fifth Avenue building. Characteristically, it is open to the public.
His casual manner — he’s known as Jim — belies a wide-ranging intellect that seems to resonate with top scientists…
During the interview, Dr. Simons reached into the pocket of his blue shirt and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, at times letting one dangle from his mouth unlit. He was relaxed and chatty, wearing tan pants and loafers, his accent betraying his Boston birth and upbringing.
Dr. Simons said he knew as a boy that he loved math and logic. He would lie in bed thinking about how to give the instruction “pass it on” in a clearly defined way.
“One night, I figured it out,” he recalled. By morning, he added, he could no longer remember the insight.
At 14, during a Christmas break, he was hired by a garden supply store for a stockroom job. But he was quickly demoted to floor sweeper after repeatedly forgetting where things went. His bosses were incredulous when, at vacation’s end, he told them he wanted to study mathematics at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology…
Forbes magazine ranks him as the world’s 93rd richest person — ahead of Eric Schmidt of Google and Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, among others — and in 2010, he and his wife were among the first billionaires to sign the Giving Pledge, promising to devote “the great majority” of their wealth to philanthropy.
Of late, Dr. Simons said, his giving had accelerated, adding that he was particularly proud of Math for America. It awards stipends and scholarships of up to $100,000 to train high school math and science teachers and to supplement their regular salaries. The corps is expanding to 1,100 teachers, mainly in New York City, but also in Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
His passion, however, is basic research — the risky, freewheeling type. He recently financed new telescopes in the Chilean Andes that will look for faint ripples of light from the Big Bang, the theorized birth of the universe.
The afternoon of the interview, he planned to speak to Stanford physicists eager to detect the axion, a ghostly particle thought to permeate the cosmos but long stuck in theoretical limbo. Their endeavor “could be very exciting,” he said, his mood palpable, like that of a kid in a candy store.
For all his self-deprecations, Dr. Simons does credit himself with a contemplative quality that seems to lie behind many of his accomplishments.
“I wasn’t the fastest guy in the world,” Dr. Simons said of his youthful math enthusiasms. “I wouldn’t have done well in an Olympiad or a math contest. But I like to ponder. And pondering things, just sort of thinking about it and thinking about it, turns out to be a pretty good approach.”
An excerpt, you can read the full NYT article here.
~Via Google News, NYT, and YouTube
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