Jim Simons (1938–2024): A mind at play in the real world

The Berkeley community mourns the death of Jim Simons, a brilliant mathematician, maverick businessman, and extraordinarily generous philanthropist whose legacy will sustain generations of researchers to come.

Color photo of Jim and Marilyn smiling at the camera, his arm around her shoulder, at a gala event.

Jim and Marilyn Simons; photo by Kelley Cox.

Asked about his transition in the 1970s from academia to the “real world” of finance, Simons replied that “math is more the real world than business.”

Throughout his life and career, Simons, who received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Berkeley in 1962, traveled through the realms of higher math, making significant and award-winning contributions to research in string theory, topology, and condensed matter physics. A generative collaborator who was also known for his skill at poker, he brought his insights about the abstract realms of math to serve the public good in concrete and lasting ways.

Simons remained deeply connected to Berkeley through his significant support of and engagement with the mathematical and physical sciences. 

“Jim Simons had a tremendously positive impact at Berkeley that will continue to expand exponentially,” says Chancellor Carol Christ. “As a mathematician working with Berkeley Professor Shiing-Shen Chern, he developed a theory, the Chern-Simons Invariant, which remains a foundational tenet of theoretical physics. As a philanthropist, he was invariably generous, providing resources that have enabled generations of Berkeley researchers to advance work in many arenas, including physics, astronomy, and computer science.”

Black and white photo headshot of a young Jim Simons

Young Jim Simons; photo courtesy of the Simons family.

After obtaining his undergraduate degree from MIT, Simons traveled by motorcycle from Boston via the Pan American Highway to Bogotá, Colombia before pursuing his doctorate in math, which he earned at Berkeley at the young age of 23. Against his thesis advisor Bertram Kostant’s advice, he completed his degree by solving a problem in the geometry of multidimensional curved spaces that had long defeated other mathematicians.

In the 1960s, he taught at MIT and Harvard University, but also was engaged in pressing social issues. In addition to teaching during that decade, while the Cold War was in full swing, he worked for the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) a federally-funded organization, helping to break codes used by the Soviet Union. In 1968, he was fired from the IDA for speaking out against the war in Vietnam.

In 1978, Simons left his job as chair of SUNY Stony Brook’s math department to develop a quantitative approach to trading stocks. He had served in that role for ten years and had met his wife, Marilyn, when she was a student there in economics. The investment firm he founded, Renaissance Technologies, which used mathematical modeling in defiance of conventional market wisdom, became one of the most lucrative in history.

Throughout his career, Simons continued and deepened his engagement with Berkeley. The Simons family — of which several members are Berkeley graduates — continues to be actively engaged with the campus. Simons’ first wife, computer scientist Barbara Simons; his daughter Liz and her spouse Mark Heising; and his son Nat and his spouse, Laura Baxter-Simons, are Berkeley alumni. The Simons family’s legacy of creativity and insight will live on through several named institutes and fellowships.

Color photo of Jim Simons standing at a chalkboard covered with words, numbers, and a diagram.

Jim Simons at MSRI; photo by David Eisenbud.

Jim was a giant in mind, soul and personality,” said Shafi Goldwasser, director of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing. “His vision, generosity and commitment to mathematics and the sciences have made a great impact on research in the field of theoretical computer science, as well as to the career trajectories of generations of young scientists.”

Through the Simons Foundation, Jim and his wife Marilyn founded and sustained vital Berkeley research endeavors such as the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing, Simons Observatory, and Simons Laufer Mathematical Sciences Institute (SLMath, formerly Mathematical Sciences Research Institute), and supported dozens of individual researchers through the Simons Fellow and Investigator awards.

Jim and Marilyn Simons also have supported the establishment of important research endeavors at other institutions, such as the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics at SUNY Stony Brook and, at MIT, the Simons Center for the Social Brain, which focuses on autism research. At the foundation’s internal research division, the Flatiron Institute, in New York, investigators use computational analysis and collaborate across disciplines to address problems in biology, neurochemistry, astrophysics, and quantum physics. 

The Simons Foundation also has dedicated significant resources to supporting math and science teachers in New York City through the nonprofit Math for America. Jim Simons displayed his well-known gaming skills at the annual Math for America poker tournament.

Simons made the declaration that math was more real than business while talking with David Eisenbud, Berkeley professor of mathematics and former director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (now SLMath). Eisenbud, who serves on the board of Math for America and continues to be involved with SLMath, reflected on the vital and lasting impact that Jim Simons had on his colleagues and on the coming generations of researchers in the mathematical and physical sciences.

In a video celebrating Jim Simons receiving the Berkeley Alumnus of the Year Award in 2016, Eisenbud reflected: “Mathematics… has a very long shelf life. What’s true today is going to be true tomorrow, and true in a million years. And the discoveries Jim made in math have that character — they’re forever.”

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