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Credit: Simons Foundation
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Interview of Jim Simons by David Zierler on December 3, 18, 22, 2020,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/45111
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics, interviews James H. Simons, Founder and Board Chair of the Simons Foundation. The interview takes place over three sessions, each covering the three main chapters of Simons’ life. In the first session, Simons discusses his family background and upbringing in Boston, his academic accomplishments in mathematics as an undergraduate at MIT and in graduate school at UC Berkeley; in the second session he discusses the origins and impact of his success as a financial investor; and in the third session Simons discusses his motivation and accomplishments with the creation of the Simons Foundation and the broad array of scientific and humanitarian causes it supports. Simons reflects on some of the intellectual and moral themes that connect each major chapter of his life; he explains how aspects of his mathematical research have advanced physics, and he conveys the enjoyment he feels at being able to support cutting edge research that enhances both theoretical science and real world advances that are improving lives all over the world.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is December 3rd, 2020. It's my great honor to be here with Doctor James H. Simons. Jim, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Well, I'm pleased to do it. And fire away.
All right, so to start, would you please tell me, and I know that this is going to be a bit of a long answer. Tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
Well, my current title is Chairman of the Simons Foundation. That's my only title. I was Chairman of Renaissance Technologies until a year ago, but then my son took it over, but I'm still on the board. That was a hedge fund business that I founded. And was a great success.
Jim, what are some of the key institutional affiliations that you have today in terms of the institutions that you support philanthropically or the boards that you sit on?
Right. Well, we support Cold Spring Harbor, MIT, Rockefeller University, IHES in France, MSRI in California, and let's see, what am I missing? I'm on the board of Rockefeller— Oh, and the Institute for Advanced Study. I'm on the board of Rockefeller. I'm a life member of the MIT board. Same thing with IAS, the Institute for Advanced Study. I used to be on the Brookhaven board, but I just dropped off that because I wasn't getting to any meetings. And my wife is chair of the Cold Spring Harbor board. And I may have missed a few boards that I'm on, but that's enough.
Jim, how well have you adjusted to life over Zoom? Have you been able to keep up with all of your responsibilities pretty well?
Yeah, pretty well. I come into the office, and I'm in the office now, at the Foundation, but most people are working from home. But I like to come into the office, and so I'll be glad when everyone's coming in and all of our meetings can be in person and so on, but Zoom is fine and it has some advantages.
Jim, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. I'd like to start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they're from.
Well, they're both of Russian ancestry. But were born in the United States. My father was born in '05. He was one of ten children. And they came from Russia in 1900, already having some children. And my mother was born in 1914. Her father came from Russia when he was 13 years old, so that, well, was a while before. And that was her father. And her mother, my grandmother on that side, was born in the United States, but her ancestors, I'm pretty sure, were Russian. Russian Jews, they're all Russian Jews.
Simons, I assume, is an Anglicized name.
It is. The original name was Sutzkever. And Sutzkever actually, he's a very famous Yiddish poet. I haven't met him, but the name Sutzkever came from the following. There was a town in I don't know Lithuania or Poland or somewhere where they spoke Russian, anyway, and Prince Radziwill bought a bunch of land and wanted some families to come and run the land, and it was in the town of (Sutzkavo . So four or five families came, one of which was my ancestors, and that was a time when people were just getting last names. So they were in the town of Sutzkavo, so Sutzkever, which must mean "from Sutzkavo" or something like that. So that was the original name. When they came to America, they wanted a nice American name, so they reached back and there was a Shimon in their ancestry, so they tried Simons, and that worked.
It worked. (laughs)
So yeah, worked.
Jim, do you know, did your parents come from religious families, or more secular families?
My mother's family was very secular. When I was bar mitzvahed, my grandfather said it was the first time he was in synagogue since he left Russia. But I think my father's family kept kosher, they were reasonably religious, but he got away from kosher. He would go to synagogue on the high holidays and so on, but he wasn't a terribly religious person. And he certainly didn't keep kosher.
And where were your parents born?
Boston. Both parents were born in Boston, and I grew up in the town of Brookline, which is right next door to Boston. And that's where I was born, and lived there until I was 14. And then we moved from our apartment to a small house in Newton, the town right next to Brookline. And so I left Brookline High School and went to Newton High School. Both schools were very good.
Jim, do you know the story of how your parents met?
No. I don't. My father was almost nine years older than my mother. I don't know how they met. He was in the film business. He worked for 20th Century Fox as a salesman. In those days, you went around to various theatres and tried to sell them whatever line 20th Century Fox was then peddling. And it was usually a group of five movies, and you had to take them all. And 20th Century Fox was lucky because they had Shirley Temple in their stable. And everyone wanted the Shirley Temple film. So they would take the costume drama or whatever, they'd take it all for Shirley Temple. So he was a salesman, and he became sales manager in the New England area, and then he made a mistake. He went to work for my mother's father, who had a shoe factory. And the shoe factory was quite a successful enterprise, and he was promised a piece of the business and so on, but what he didn't realize was that while my grandfather made a lot of money he spent a lot of money on horses and women. So my father never got a piece of that business, and he didn't especially like working for his father-in-law, but he stuck with it. And so he was in the shoe business in his late years.
What level of education did both of your parents attain?
My mother went through high school and then she went to, I think, finishing school or something like that. My father finished eighth grade. That was all. He told me he started going to night school, but he was working full time and he kept falling asleep at the desk, so he dropped out of night school. But they were both intelligent people, and you know, in those days a lot of people didn't go beyond high school anyway. So that was that.
Jim, to the extent that scientific or mathematical ability has a genetic component to it, is there anyone you're aware of in your family that you might have inherited some of these innate talents?
Well, not of my ancestors, but one of my first cousins was a very good physicist until he started working for Renaissance. So he was a full professor at University of Virginia. He was a well-known experimental physicist. And he was a very smart guy. So that's the only relative I have I think that had some mathematical leaning. So, but my parents or grandparents, no.
And Jim, when you were a kid, how did you or your teachers or your parents first recognize the abilities that you had?
Well, all parents think their kids are a genius, so (laughs) so, but I did get involved with math very early. I loved to keep multiplying by two and see... I finally got up to whatever it is, 1,024, I guess? And so I liked to do that. I remember I was in the car with my father when I was maybe four or five at the most, and he said he had to stop to get gas, and I said, "Why do you have to do that?" And he said, "Well, we could run out of gas if I don't stop." And I said to myself and then to him, "Well, you don't have to run out of gas. You can use half of what you have, and then you can use half of that and then half of that, and you'll never run out of gas." (both laugh) Well, it didn't occur to me that you'd never get anywhere either, but I just kept slicing up what was in the gas tank. And I remember also spending many a night lying in bed thinking, "How do you define the expression, "Pass it on." That's an expression, right? Pass it on. How do you define it? How do you explain to someone that he's supposed to say to someone, the next guy down, et cetera, that wasn't good enough. I really wanted to figure it out. And one night, I did figure it out, and then when I woke up, I forgot what it was. So (both laugh) but now I remember. But it's, you know, a strange thing for a kid to do as, I was maybe eight, to think about such a question. So I always liked math.
Jim, when you were a small kid, do you have any memories of World War II or the impact that that had on adults around you?
Yeah. I knew the war was on. I was born in '38 and the war was over in '45 when I was seven, and I'll tell you a funny story about that, but yeah, you know, some things were rationed. For example, butter was rationed at one time, so the three of us, my mother, father, and I, I'm an only child, would go into the store separately and buy butter so we could have enough butter. The news was always about the war. I remember right after the war, I was listening— I was in the car with my father, and he would always turn on the news, and the news was not about the war, but it was about a bank robbery. And I said, "Wow." And my father says, "Well, the war's over, there are other things to report on." I was at summer camp when the atomic bomb was dropped. I was seven years old. And the owner of the camp thought it was important enough to gather everyone together and have a discussion. So all the kids and the counselors, this was a big deal. This was the atomic bomb. So one person from each age group, including the counselors, was invited up on the stage to participate in the discussion, and for random reasons, I was the one from my group. And so I listened to this and I listened and I listened, and then it was my turn, and I said, "Well this thing is so powerful, it must take an enormous amount of coal to make it work. And if we build a lot of these, we could run out of coal." People took it seriously. (both laugh) I mean, the older people, no one had any notion of what atomic energy was, and so they took running out of coal seriously. So that's what I remember about the Second World War. And that's one memory, but you know, it was on and then it was over. And it was back to, well, what everyone else thought was normal.
Jim, at the dinner table, would your parents ever talk about politics? Did you have an understanding of what their political inclinations were?
Yes. When I was little, it was Roosevelt, and everyone loved Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, but they weren't particularly political. But it was— In fact, I met one kid during one of the Roosevelt elections, and he allowed that his father was going to vote for Dewey, I guess. I don't remember. I was astounded. I thought that everyone was voting for Roosevelt. I had never heard of anyone who wasn't. But of course he won the election, whichever one it was. It was probably his last election. So but there was no politics in the family.
Did your parents ever talk about a decision or inability to not have other children?
Well, not when I was little, but I found out later that my mother, after I was born, had four or five miscarriages, and had to have a hysterectomy. There was damage to her uterus. So she couldn't have any more children. So no, I knew she went to the hospital and had an operation. I didn't know exactly what it was, and I was a little kid. So I always wanted a brother or sister, but you know. Do you have any siblings?
I do. I'm the oldest of four boys.
Oh four boys, well. That must have been fun.
(laughs) You can ask my mom about that. (both laugh)
You notice I smoke.
That's all right. Enjoy.
Thank you. Well, I'm 82, and I think if I stopped smoking, I'd get stupider than I am.
This is a lifelong habit, or you picked this up later in life?
Oh, ever since I was 14. I started smoking when I was 14. I had permission when I was 15, and I have never been without a cigarette, so.
Well, you've done okay by it.
I have. I can walk large distances at high speed. I'm physically extremely good. I can do 50 push ups, as a matter of fact. So I'm in good health so far.
That's great, that's great. Jim, what kind of elementary school did you go to? Was it a public school?
Yes, it was public school. It was a few blocks away. And it was K-8.
And your neighborhood, was it mostly Jewish, was it ethnically mixed?
Where I lived, my school was largely Jewish. I would think 2/3rd of the kids were Jewish. So Brookline happened to be a town that was half Jewish.
It had a lot of Jewish people in it. And so the majority of the kids were Jewish, and they seemed to be all the smart kids, and I concluded, well, you have to be Jewish to be smart. But then a kid joined us named Brian Claxton, and he was very smart. (laughs) And he was not Jewish, so then I learned, well, not everyone has to be Jewish to be smart. But most of my friends were Jewish, but some weren't. And I moved to Newton High School and I was actually glad to meet more kids who were not Jewish. And—
Newton was more mixed?
Yeah, it was quite mixed. It was quite mixed.
Did you ever experience or hear any sort of anti-Jewish slurs or anything like that growing up?
Few. A few. See, down the street not very far away was a lot of Irish Catholics. And they would pick on us sometimes or call us names. Kike was a name that I was called on a few occasions, but it didn't bother me particularly. It didn't make me feel less of myself. Although I didn't like these Irish kids, but when I went to high school, there was an Irish kid in my class who was very funny. He was pretty smart and he was very funny, and then I realized, well, not all Irish are so bad. So (both laugh)
Jim, was the decision for you to get a bar mitzvah, was that your decision, your parents' decision, everybody decided together?
Yeah, I mean everyone I knew, the kids were getting bar mitzvahed. So I went to Hebrew school. After school Tuesday and Thursday, and Saturday morning. And I learned to read Hebrew very fast. And that seems to be... and I hated it. I didn't like Hebrew school at all. I couldn't wait to get out. Play with the other kids. But a lot of kids were in Hebrew school, and one of the kids in my class was a Greek guy. He went to Greek school, of all things. But everybody, all the Jewish kids I knew, had bar mitzvahs.
And for you, it was more of an obligation and you mostly walked away from that after your bar mitzvah?
I walked away as fast as I could. The rabbi, when he was talking to me just before the service and so on, and said, "Now, you know Jimmy, what you've learned so far is very good, but it's much more important that you keep learning and learning about Judaism." And I nodded my head, knowing full well I was never coming back to studying Judaism. So. But you know, that was fine.
Jim, at what point in perhaps middle school or high school did you realize that the math classes that they were offering was not going to be enough for you?
You know, I didn't think they wanted— I loved it. I loved the math. When we did plain geometry, I guess I was a sophomore at Newton. I loved that. Theorems and proofs and so on. So I didn't think, but there sure were some other kids in the who were good at that. And so I didn't think... Then it turned out that, you know, we have Advanced Placement today, AP classes? They were just coming into vogue, and it was called the (Kenyon 22:47) Plan. And Kenyon was a university, and some people there in the education department came up with this plan that high school kids could take freshman college courses. And so Newton High was one of the first to do this, and my math teacher— I had two very good math teachers— who was involved in this thing, and I learned later that he told— you know what, we took a test, you know, at the end, and he told the group, "Simons has to pass this test because if he doesn't pass it, it's too hard." (both laugh) But I passed it. I did well, and I went to MIT. I went to MIT. I was applying to college, and I'd applied to MIT and I guess gotten in, and University of Chicago. But then someone called me from Wesleyan. You ever heard of Wesleyan University?
Which is in Connecticut, it wasn't far away. And he says, "I'm from Wesleyan. We've heard about you and we'd love you to apply to Wesleyan." I said, "Well, oh, all right. Where is it?" And so on. They invited me down for a weekend. So I drove down to Wesleyan, had a very nice weekend. Maybe I got there on Friday and sat in on a math class or whatever. And went to a party. And I got home, I applied to Wesleyan, and I was rejected. (both laugh) Now, in those days, colleges passed around— they shared information with each other, who was applying to what and so on. So my only guess is that they realized I was already admitted to MIT and University of Chicago, and I would probably go there, so they didn't want to waste an offer. On the other hand, maybe I did something outrageous, I can't remember any... So that was Wesleyan. So I went to MIT. And just wanted to do math. And they let me do that, more or less.
Why were you also considering Chicago? Was that the other top math program in the country at that time?
I didn't really know who had the top math. I knew University of Chicago was a very good place. Intellectually. So I assumed they had a good math department. But I decided on MIT. It was close, and you know, I had visited there before and I liked the atmosphere. So I went there. But I just wanted to take math courses. I had to take some other courses, of course, but I took a graduate course in my freshman year in my second semester. It was a graduate course in abstract algebra. And I took it because it said, "No prerequisites required." So I thought, "Oh, I could do this." And I got through it, but I was just very puzzled by it. A lot of stuff just didn't make much sense to me. But that summer, I got a book on abstract algebra, and within a couple of weeks, everything became crystal clear. And then subsequently, I took all the following courses in that field. But a big turning point was in... I guess I took differential geometry, in my third year. And that was of course a graduate course. And I was just... I just loved it. In particular, a theorem called Stokes' theorem. Do you know Stokes' theorem?
I've heard of it, yeah.
Yeah. You know, it's a generalization of the fundamental theorem of calculus. The fundamental theorem of calculus says in effect, the integral of the derivative, you'd get back where you started. Right, the integral of f-prime from A to B is f of B minus f of A. So this was just a big generalization of it. And they introduced something called differential forms, and well, you could integrate them, and there was a D operator. So you could take a differential form and integrate it over the boundary of something, and that would be the same as taking D of it and integrating it over the interior. D of it was one dimension higher. And that was so beautiful to me, and I just loved it.
D squared was zero.
What was so beautiful about it to you?
I don't know. I don't know. It just—
That it was elegant? That it was simple?
That it was elegant that you used these things called differential forms. I don't know if you know what differential forms are?
You do? Okay. So I like the definition of differential forms and I liked everything about it, and even that D squared was zero. Which subsequently... I didn't learn a de Rham theorem, which is about real cohomology, but that D squared was zero was the key point in the de Rham theorem. I learned that in graduate school, I guess.
Jim, as an undergraduate, was the curriculum more geared toward applied math or more pure math?
I didn't do— Oh I did, I took an advanced standing course in applied math. Because I wanted to get through early. So I graduated in three years from MIT. And so I took one applied math course, but mostly pure math courses. And of course I took, you know, you had to take some non-science courses, so I took literature and a couple— and I liked that stuff. Literature. But then I finished early and decided just to stay there in graduate school, and I did. And I worked with a guy named Singer. You've heard of the Atiyah–Singer index theorem, perhaps?
Sure. Yeah, sure.
So I worked with Is Singer. In fact, I called him a couple of days ago. He's 95 now and on his last legs, but he was there mentally to a certain extent. So I worked with him. I learned about Lie groups and Lie algebras and it was good. But they told me... Chern, who was the great name in differential geometry, had just moved from the University of Chicago to Berkeley. And I ought to go to Berkeley and study with Chern. Well, that seemed reasonable. So I applied and they gave me a nice fellowship. And I went to Berkeley to work with Chern. Regrettably, Chern was celebrating his first year at Berkeley by taking a sabbatical. So he wasn't there.
So he wasn't there. So I found another guy to work with. A guy named Kostant. And I wrote my thesis. It was a very good thesis, actually. It got published in the (Annals 31:21), which was the best journal, one of the top journals. But my second year— and I did that in two years— but the beginning of my second year, I was giving a seminar and this tall Chinese guy walked in, and I said to the guy next to me, "Who's that?" He said, "That's Chern." I had never realized he was Chinese. If his name had been Chen or Chan, but it was Chern with an R. So I figured he was a Polish guy who changed his name from Chernowski to Chern or something like that. But anyway, that's how I met Chern, and we became good friends then. Well, "friends," that is, he was 20 years older than I was or more. But we did become friends and that was great.
Jim, what was your thesis on? What did you study?
You know what holonomy is?
Okay, there is such a thing as parallel transport. So if you have a, let's just say a two-dimensional closed surface. Doesn't have to be closed, but closed surface, with a metric on it. I.e a positive definite inner product on the tangent space at every point. Then there's something called a connection, which allows you to move a vector, a tangent vector, parallel to itself. Okay? So think of it as... On the table, when you start here and you just move this parallel to itself, and then you keep it parallel to itself and go around in a circle, or any kind of a closed curve, and come back. Well if you do this on the table, you're going to come back just to where you started. But if there's some curvature, that won't be the case. And so I'll show you a very simple example.
Start at the North Pole, take any tangent vector there. Slide it perpendicular to a geodesic down to the equator. Now it's tangent to the equator. Now move it 90 degrees around, keeping it tangent to the equator, and then bring it back to the north pole keeping it perpendicular to the geodesic coming down that met it. As you can see, the vector has made a 90 degree turn. More generally, if you take any point in a manifold, take all the closed curves that start and end there, parallel translate all the tangent vectors around. That turns out to be a linear operator and it's a group. It's a transformation group. It's not an abelian group, it's not a commutative group necessarily. It's just a group. So that's the holonomy group. And it's a very interesting object to study and so a guy named Berger in France had characterized all of the holonomy groups on a Riemannian manifold that could exist. And it was a list of maybe eight. I don't remember how many. They were all Lie groups. Perhaps you know what a Lie group is, but—
Right. But they had one thing in common, that if the manifold was not a product of two other manifolds, or what is called a Symmetric Space, the holonomy group would always be transitive. In other words, you could get from one tangent vector at a point to any other tangent vector at the same point by parallel translating around an appropriate closed curve starting and ending at that point. So it was always transitive. So that was interesting. Why? Why were they all transitive? So a lot of people worked on that to try to get an intrinsic proof of this transitivity. And so I had an idea, which turned out to be related to that question, and so it was a little theorem that I proved and I showed it to my thesis advisor, and then he said, "Oh, that could maybe help with this question." And he told me the question. And I said, "Oh that's right, maybe it could." But he said, "But don't work on that." He says, "Borel has worked on that, Singer has worked on that, a lot of people have tried to do this without success." But that has just got me fired up. And so I solved that problem and gave an intrinsic proof of transitivity.
That took a certain amount of gumption on your part, to think that you could do it where these others were not able to.
Yeah, it never— I just did it. And...
Jim, what did you figure out that the others couldn't?
I haven't the faintest idea. I didn't know what their approach was. But I algebraized it all. Turned it into something I called a holonomy system. Which was a generalization. And then proved that they would always be transitive, unless it corresponded to a symmetric space. So I don't know, I just, I had some communication with Singer. He encouraged me. And then I actually came back, Christmastime in my second year, and I met with Singer. There was a big snowstorm. Because I was stuck at a certain point I showed him what I was up to, and I said, "I'm stuck here." And he looked at me and he said "you're not using the fact that it's irreducible. That it's not a product of things." Oh, of course. So he helped me get through that little stumbling block. I guess I would have figured it out, but nonetheless, he was helpful. And so I was two years at Berkeley, and then I went back to MIT to teach. I was what was called a Moore Instructor, and I started to work in a very different area called minimal surfaces or minimal varieties. You know what a minimal surface is?
You have a wire and... a closed wire and the surface that spans, that wire has less area than any other surface. That's a minimal surface. If you dip a wire loop into soap suds, any shaped loop, and take it out there will be a film spanning the interior of the loop. That film has less area than any other film spanning the loop. It is called a minimal surface, and guy named Jesse Douglas had proved in 1930 that any closed curve in 3-dimensional space, however twisted up it may be, can be spanned by a smooth minimal surface. That was called Plateau's problem, and he won the Fields medal for that, in fact he was the world’s first Fields medalist as the medal had just been created.
So people got interested in these things, but in higher dimensions. So okay, well what about a two-dimensional boundary in 4-dimensional space? Could you always fill it in with some smooth 3-dimensional surface that's minimal with respect to all others? And a guy named Fred Almgren had recently proved that theorem. He went up one step. So I got very interested in this area and worked hard for over five years, and proved a lot of theorems, but the pièce de résistance was when I proved you could always do this in up to ambient dimension seven. So, if you had a 5-dimensional boundary in 7-dimensional space, and you wanted to fill it in with a smooth 6-dimensional minimal surface, you could do that. I showed that that was possible right up to there, but gave a counter-example in 8-dimensional ambient space.
The counter-example was, you would take two three-dimensional spheres and look at their cross-product in 8-dimensional space. So that's a 6-dimensional object. Now draw a straight line down to the origin from every point on that object. That gives you a seven-dimensional thing with a point, like a cone. And I showed that that was minimal in that every small perturbation holding the boundary fixed had larger 7-dimensional area, but it wasn't smooth because it had a point. And a number of years later, maybe three or four or five, three Italian mathematicians working together showed that, yes, that was a genuine counter-example. Not only was the cone locally minimal with respect to its boundary it was globally minimal – every other 7-dimentional filling had larger area. So that killed the problem. That paper, called Minimal Varieties in Riemannian Manifolds, had a lot of other good stuff as well and has had almost 1,700 citations. It keeps getting cited. And it's 50 years old!
Jim, on the personal side of things, did you have a good time in Berkeley?
Well, I had a very good time in my two years at Berkeley. My girlfriend went out there with me. She had been going to Wellesley and hated it, so when I went out as a graduate student, she came as an undergraduate. And well, we decided we would get married. We were living together, but you know, we thought, well maybe she'd get pregnant and we'd better get married. So we got married, that was all nice, and then one day she said, "I'm pregnant." And we were shocked. And in those days, there was pretty much nothing legal or safe that you could do about it. So we had a beautiful daughter whom I love very much. And that was all very nice. And then, well, we came back to Boston, and...
Did you ever think about staying in Berkeley and making a life for yourself in California?
No. I liked California and I liked Berkeley, but I felt the action was on the East Coast.
And I wanted to work on the East Coast, and MIT made me a very nice offer. And so yeah. I liked Berkeley, but well there it is.
Jim, I'll ask for my last question for today's session. When you graduated, when you defended your thesis, what were your career ambitions? Did you think that being a university professor, being a professor of mathematics, was that where you saw your career headed?
Yes. That is where I thought my career was headed, and it's interesting. When I went back to MIT to teach, I remember sitting in the library one day, saying, "Well... I guess I'll become an assistant professor and then an associate professor and then a professor and then I'll go through life that way and then die." And it made me think maybe there are other things in the world.
That's what I was getting at. I'm trying to figure out at what point you're starting to think, maybe there's more for you to do?
Yeah. And I had that thought very early, although that didn't take me away from math at all at that point.
Of course, of course. And the appointment at MIT was a faculty appointment or it was a postdoctoral appointment?
They didn't have what were called "postdocs." They had instructors. But it was at that same level.
But they had a certain class of instructors called Moore Instructors. That was that you got paid a little more if you were a Moore Instructor, and that's what I was. A Moore Instructor.
With the understanding that if you did a good job, you might get promoted to a tenure-line position?
Sure, sure. Yeah. And but well anyway, then I was only there for one year for a variety of reasons, and then I moved over to Harvard, where I was put on a contract, the grant of a guy named Bott. And I was on Bott's contract for a year, I didn't have any teaching to do, and then they made me an assistant professor at Harvard and I was an assistant professor there. But I really didn't like Harvard. And well, I could go on and on, but we'd better wait for the next session.
That's a perfect place to pick up on the next session. All right, Jim, it's been great talking with you, and we'll pick up next time.
Okay. Carry on.
All right, thank you. Terrific, take care. Bye.
[End 201203_0387_D] [Begin 201217_0401_D]
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is December 18th, 2020. I'm delighted to be back with Doctor James H. Simons. Jim, it's great to see you again.
Well, it's good to see you too. How long have you been doing this job?
Oh, on this job? I've been here for one year, but I've been interviewing scientists for 20 years.
For 20 years? Right out of high school. You look awful young.
(laughs) Right out of my PhD.
You have a PhD in physics?
I have a PhD in history of science.
Oh, where did you get that?
Yeah, it's an interesting subject, the history of science.
It is. I love it.
Well, Jim, I want to get started today setting the stage from where we left off last week. When you came back to Cambridge from Berkeley, academically, intellectually, geographically, did you feel like you were coming home?
Yeah, I did feel like I was coming home. In fact, I took an apartment in the same town, Brookline, that I had grown up in. That town I grew up in until I was 14. So yeah, I felt like I was coming home.
And what did the experience in California do for you in terms of broadening your life perspectives, exposing you to new ways of thinking or seeing the world in ways that perhaps you might not have gotten if you had just stayed in Cambridge straight through?
Oh, I don't know, I mean I liked California, although I did not want to stay there particularly, but I liked it. And Berkeley is a great place. I've helped them out financially occasionally over the years. But you know, I was, you know, obviously I'd learned some things from my thesis advisor, and then being friends with Chern. And so I'd learned some things mathematically, of course. But that's about all I can say about Berkeley.
When you came back to Cambridge, I'd like to return to something that you said in our first interview, which it seemed so important for your life narrative. And that's, at some point you thought to yourself, "Is there anything more that I can do besides being a professor of math?" When did you start to develop that idea into something that would become relevant in the world of finance and investments?
Well, did I tell you about the Columbia business? The business in Columbia?
Okay. So I had gone to MIT with two boys from Columbia, South America. They were very good friends, they were very smart. They were down there, and each one had a job of some sort, but it was my feeling that they could start a company and do great things in Columbia. I had been in Columbia because as I may have mentioned, after graduating MIT, we rode there on motor scooters. So I had seen Columbia, it looked like a nice country to me with a lot of possibilities, and if you started a business, a manufacturing business, where theretofore the goods were imported, then imports would be banned and you could have the business to yourself. And so I told these guys, "I'm going to come down to Bogotá and let's find a business, and I won't leave until we do." So that Christmas vacation, I went to Bogotá and we looked and we looked and we looked, and we came up with something that seemed very reasonable, and that was to make floor tile, vinyl tile. It was actually vinyl asbestos that the asbestos was in there to add strength to it. It was a very common type of floor tile but it was not manufactured in Columbia. And there was a lot of construction going on. So they liked that idea.
The father of one of the boys would put up half the money, and the other boys, they had some money themselves, they were wealthier than I was. But I managed to scrape together 10% of the, you know, of the investment. And I went back to MIT. Where I was teaching. And so that planted a seed. And it turned out that they expected to manufacture and sell a million square meters a year, and there would soon be dividends and all that. However, we never got more than 300,000. The demand was less than they expected. And in the meantime, I had borrowed some money and I needed to pay it back, and so after three years in Cambridge, I learned of a job in Princeton at what was called the Institute for Defense Analyses. And that was a highly-classified place, they did code cracking. They only hired mathematicians and some programmers. And you could spend up to half your time on your own work, but you had to spend at least half your time on theirs. Anyway, I applied for that job because it paid quite a lot, and they took me. And I really liked the job, and so I learned about computers and I learned about, well, codes and ciphers and that kind of stuff. But I also was working away on minimal surfaces, or minimal varieties, higher dimensional minimal surfaces, which I discussed in the last interview. And after three years, maybe two and a half or three years, I finished the paper, and it was an extremely good paper, and it really set up this area in a way that it hadn't been before. That was the first paper that I published since my thesis, but nonetheless, it was worth the wait.
So I was there for four years. The head of the works was a guy in Washington named Maxwell Taylor. Have you ever heard of that name?
Yeah. And he was my boss's boss. And he wrote an article in the New York Times, it was on the cover story of the magazine, saying how great we're doing in Vietnam, and we just have to stay the course and all that stuff. But I thought it was stupid. We ought to get out of there right away. So I wrote a letter to the editor. It started off saying not everyone who works for General Taylor shares his views. And I gave my views. And they published it right away, and well, some of my friends said that was a good letter, but no one said anything else. I didn't lose my security clearance, and everyone was silent in the organization. But a couple of months later, a guy came around. He was a young guy like you. And said he's a stringer for Newsweek Magazine, and he's doing an article on people who work for the Defense Department, which indirectly I did, but who were opposed to the war. "And I'm having trouble finding such people. Could I interview you?" I was 29 years old, and no one had asked to interview me before, so I said sure, you can interview me.
And well, I couldn't tell him what we did, of course, but I did say that, well, the rule here is you can spend half your time on your own stuff and half your time on their stuff. But my policy is, until the war is over, I'm going to spend all my time on my stuff, and then after the war, I'll spend an equal amount, all my time, on their stuff to even it out. And I don't know, I said a few other things. And then I went back to the office, and did the only intelligent thing I had done that day. I told my boss I gave this interview. He said, "Well, what did you say?" I said, "Well, I said half and half and so on." And he says, "Well, I have to call Taylor." So, he went into his office, called Taylor. He came out five minutes later and said, "You're fired." So, I said, "You can't fire me, my title is Permanent Member." And he said, "Well, you know the difference between a temporary member and a permanent member?" I said, "No." He said, "A temporary member has a contract." (both laugh) "But a permanent member doesn't. So, I was fired, but...
Jim, do you think... were you on Taylor's shit list from the earlier thing that you said about disagreeing with him? Do you think he was aware of you?
I'm sure he was. I'm sure he was, but I had every right to write such a letter. I mean, that I disagreed with him was, okay, I disagreed with him. That wasn't a problem. But when I said I'm going to spend all my time, in effect, on my own work, it was like saying, "I'm just not going to work for you anymore for a certain amount of time."
So anyway, it wasn't unreasonable that I was fired, but I was not... I didn't worry, although I had a wife and three children at the time. Because the paper on minimal varieties had been getting a lot of attention, and I knew that I would get a good academic job. And I had a couple of offers, but then Stony Brook University, which was a newish university at that time, offered me a job to be chair of the math department. And well, that sounded very interesting to me. So, I interviewed for it, and the provost who interviewed me said, "Well, I have to say, Dr. Simons, you're the first person that I've interviewed for this job who actually wants it." And I said, "Well, I want it. I would take the job." So, they hired me, and it was great, because at that time, they had a lot of money. Rockefeller was still governor and he loved the state university, so they had a big budget, and I was able to hire some great people, and in the next three years, we really built up an outstanding department. And that was fun. It was also the period that I started working, first on my own, and then with Chern. I got some beautiful results on 3-dimensional manifolds, and showed them to Chern, and he said, "Oh, we can do this in all dimensions." I said, "Really? Well, let's work together on that and see." So, I started working with Chern, and I'd go back and forth to Berkeley, because I was the young guy, and he was the old guy, so I had to travel to him. In those days, there was no email and stuff like that. And so we wrote that paper. And as I'm sure you know, Chern–Simons theory or whatever is very common in physics today.
In all kinds of areas. And I didn't know any physics. And I still don't know any physics. Although I did make friends while I was at Stony Brook with Yang, you know CN Yang?
Of Yang–Mills, and— (phone rings) Wait a minute. It's my daughter. I'll tell you a funny story about Yang. After I was there in the first year I was there, he invited me up to his office. He was very pleased that the math department was going to— that I was there and we were going to build a good math department. So, he wanted to show me what he was doing, and he covered the board for an hour. I didn't understand a word. But I nodded in various places and said thanks and went back to my office. The next year, the same thing. And well, I went back to my office.
But the third year, he started writing on the board, and I finally realized what he was doing. He was inventing some mathematics which was already done 40 years earlier, and I said, "Stop, stop, stop what you're doing. That's already done, and you're not doing it right." He said, "I'm not doing— it's already done?" he said, "Well why would the mathematicians have done this?" I said, "Well, it was natural." And it was, it was just a natural outgrowth of where mathematics was going in an area called fiber bundles. So, it meant connections in fiber bundles and so on. So, I told him that, and then he said, "Well, would you give us a seminar on this stuff?" So, I said sure. It was about six sessions over lunch. It was his organization, senior physicists, so it was the best class I ever had. It was the smartest guys I ever had in a class.
And it was like, well in math we call it this, and in physics you apparently call it that, and you get all these indexes that you're throwing around which are really not necessary. It was good. And at the end, they gave me a present of one of those giant dictionaries that you can only hold with two arms, and they gave me that because I'm a terrible speller, as it turned out. So when I was at the board, I was always misspelling things, so they gave me a dictionary, which I still have. And I'm still friends with Yang, although he's 98 now and so we're losing him soon I guess. So, he became quite a good friend, and actually, of course, he knew Chern. In fact, I think he had studied with Chern, and I think that Chern had studied with Yang's father, although I'm not sure of that. But Yang is a terrific guy, of course. So—
Jim, what was Chern like as a person?
Chern was very friendly. Very thoughtful. He was a totally nice person in every respect. He was a nice person. And he would take people out to dinner often, he was just an all-around terrific guy. That's him as a person. Of course, he was a terrific mathematician. But we got along very well, and his wife was lovely. And so Chern was nice, and I'm still friends with his daughter, who lives in Texas. So that's who Chern was.
We were working together during the same period that the Colombian company that I had changed direction. They were in the vinyl floor business, but plastic pipe, vinyl pipe, was just coming into use. You know, plastic pipe was made of vinyl, and they decided, well, they're already in the vinyl business, they could get into the pipe business. Everyone— there were others in the pipe business in Columbia, but they had to import the fittings. You know, like the elbows and things like that. Because that's made in a different way than just pushing out the pipe. So we decided, or the company decided, to raise some additional money, which I scraped together somehow. And got into this business and buy the injection molding equipment necessary to make the fittings. Well, everyone who wanted fittings now had to buy from us, and of course we charged quite a lot. So almost all those companies went out of business, and for us it was seven days a week, 24 hours a day. We couldn't make it fast enough. So, the business was very successful. And at a certain point, they sold half of it and then I had quite a lot of money, my father and I had quite a lot of money.
Your father was a partner in this?
Yeah, he was my partner. I mean, he owned some and I owned some, yes. I just had this little bit, but it turned into something quite good, and my friends said to me, "Okay, we now have all this money. We want you to invest it for us." So I was still at Stony Brook. And invest, okay. I knew one guy who was a mathematician who had gone into the commodities trading business. And I said, well, I met him. And I said, "Okay, we'll give you X amount of dollars. And we'll pay you, I don't know, 20% of the profits. But if you lose too much, you have to stop." And he said, "Fine." And I was walking out the door, I said, "Oh, also if you make too much, you have to stop." And he said, "Well, what do you mean, make too much?" I said, "Well, if you multiply our money by a factor of ten after your fees, you've got to stop." And he said, "Okay. I couldn't argue against that." Nine months later, we stopped on that basis. He had actually made ten times our money.
Did you think that that's what was going to happen? This was just a guess on your part?
It was, you know, I just thought, well, if we really made a lot of money, we ought to stop and think. But it never occurred to me that in nine months, he would... It was sugar. He got into buying sugar and sugar went up and up and up and up and up... and I was watching it, because I could see, hey, we're coming up to this ten times, and I called him and said, "Can you actually get us out of this position?" And he said, "Oh yeah, sure." And so he sold the sugar, and...
Jim, why place the cap? What's the ten times? Why not just keep going, make more money?
Well, I just thought, with that much money, we just ought to pause and think. And it turned out to be a very, very good thing because he stayed in that business for some years, and never made a dime, or he made little bits of money, but this was... I knew this was a fluke. These things don't happen very often. And a fluke if we made ten times our money, but if we did it would be a fluke, and I felt we ought to stop and think. So that was when I got into the investment business. So I was finally... I stayed doing math for about seven years, I think, I was at Stony Brook. Seven or eight years. And I had been doing some other math besides the work with Chern. I and another guy, Jeff Cheeger, invented what we called differential characters. And we did that work and it formed the basis of what's called differential cohomology, which is a field. A small field, but an important field in math. So, I had kept doing mathematics. But then I got into the investment world and stayed there for a long time.
Jim, as you tell it, it sounds like with the vinyl business, you just had a good nose for a market opportunity. It doesn't sound so much like you were applying your mathematical skills to developing a business and making money. But when you got in—
Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Nope, it had nothing to do with mathematics.
And in fact, when I started trading, it didn't... there was no mathematics. It was, you know, put your finger to a random...
And read a lot, and I was good at that. But it seemed to me that we could do something mathematical, one way or another. So I hired a guy who had been at IDA in Princeton, a friend of mine. He was a great model maker. And I said, you know, "Come work with me. I'll pay you well, and we'll make a model for trading." So, he came, we made a model, it was okay, but we didn't... It wasn't that good a model, so we were still trading fundamentally, and one day he didn't come in to work, but he came in in the early afternoon, and I said, well— His name was Leonard Baum. And he is responsible for something called the Baum-Welch Algorithm. And that's used for all kinds of things, right up until today. He and a guy named, well, Welch, obviously. So I said, "Where you been?" He said, "Well, I'm tired of doing R." Which I knew stood for Research. "I want to do some P." Which means Production in the IDA world. And I said, "Okay, what P do you have in mind?" He said, "Well, Margaret Thatcher has been sitting on the pound, and she can't hold it down forever. And we should buy pounds." And I said, "Well, Lenny, I wish you'd come in earlier in the day." He said why? And I said, "Because Margaret Thatcher just stood up. She stopped sitting on the pound, and the pound was taking off." And he said, "Well, how high is it?" I said, "Well, it's already up five cents." He said, "That's nothing, we should buy pounds." And we did, and it went up quite considerably, and there it was.
He didn't want to have anything to do with models after that. He just wanted to do fundamental trading. And we worked together and hired some other people and didn't do anything with modeling. At a certain point we each had our portfolio, Lenny and I, and we both bought gold at roughly the same time. You're too young to remember this, but gold was at a fixed price for years and years and years. I think it was $35 an ounce. And you weren't allowed as an American to trade gold or anything. But then they let it go, and it started going up considerably, and so Lenny and I each bought gold, but when mine got to about $500 an ounce, I sold my portion. But Lenny held on. He says, "You never know how high this is going to go." And it went up to $600, $700, $800. When it crossed $800, I happened to be talking to a friend of mine who was a stock broker, and he said, "Well, this morning my wife cleaned out my drawers of all of my gold cufflinks and tie pins, and wanted to sell them." And I said, "Well, what are you running out of money?" He says, "No, no. But she makes jewelry and she was able to stand in the short line." I said, "The short line?" He says, "Yeah, don't you realize that people are selling gold right and left? They're all lining up to sell gold." I said, "Well, thank you for telling me this." I hung up that phone and picked up another phone which went to the trading floor, held it to Lenny’s ear and said, "Lenny, sell the gold." He said, "Nah, I'm not going to sell it." I said, "Sell the effing gold. I'm the boss." So, he said, "Okay, but you don't know how high it'll go." He sold it at $820 or something. The next day we came in, it was already $840, and he was so mad. But by the end of the day, it collapsed. It collapsed down to $600 and in the subsequent days, it got down to $400, then $300, and stayed around there. So that was just a lucky call. But anyway, so that was it, but—
Jim, same question. So on a moment like this, is this not you applying your mathematical abilities? This is just reading the tea leaves? Organizational psychology? I mean, what's the talent at play here that allows you to have this sort of intuition?
Well, it just seemed to me that if everyone is lining up to sell something, the price can't hold up very well, right? I mean, and this was a new development, these long lines. So, it was— We already had made so much money in it, and it was reasonable to think this can't go on forever, and forever turned out to be one day. But it was good luck.
Jim, to go back to the IDA for a second. In what ways, if at all, do you think working with ciphers and code breaking with the NSA was useful in the world of investments?
Well, it turned out to be, because we did get back into model building in a big way. And so, I learned about computers, you know, what they can do and algorithms and things of that nature, which I wouldn't have done as a regular differential geometer. So, it was good that I had been there. And I learned the difference between good programmers and wonderful programmers. And there's a very big difference between those guys. And those types. So, I learned about programming. I can't program to save my life, but so... But then we hired a guy named Jim Ax who was a famous mathematician, and he was at Stony Brook. I had hired him at Stony Brook. He had won something called the Cole Prize in algebra and number theory. And he started working for us, and he looked at Lenny's old model, and he tested it out on... That model was only currencies. Foreign currencies. But he tested it out on all commodities and it seemed to work for all commodities, and it seemed to work pretty well. So, we started then technical trading, and well, that worked for a while.
And I had hired another guy named Henry Laufer, and he was working for us. And he was a good mathematician. And he came up with another way of very short-term trading. But then Ax didn't pay any attention to that, and he went out to California. He wanted to be in California, so his group moved to California. That was okay with me, because I was thinking about other things. And we started a fund which was called the Medallion Fund which Ax ran. And at first it went pretty well, and Henry left the firm. Ax didn't like Henry. So, Henry left the firm, and I told him that he could use the stuff that he had developed for himself or his family, but he can't start another fund competing with us. And he said that was fine. So, at a certain point, what Ax was running was starting to lose money. And it was a very complicated system. He'd made it extremely complicated. But the bottom line was, it was losing money, and I figured out why, and I told him he had to stop. And I told my investors, "We're going to go into a study period. If you want your money back, you can get it." But they had made a lot of money with me through other things, so almost everyone stayed.
And who were your investors at this point, Jim? What kinds of people were partnering with you?
Well, some of the Colombians. And some Americans that I knew and so on. I mean, we were doing very well. In a number of things.
Well enough that you started to attract the attention of the fat cats on Wall Street at this point?
Not really. We were kind of quiet. But we had to stop trading and go into a study period. I hired Henry back with his short-term stuff, and he and I worked together. In fact, I hired another guy out on the West Coast to help. A guy named Elwyn Berlekamp, a terrific scientist, and the three of us really came up with some very good things. And after six months, we were back in business and that was it. From then on until now, the Medallion Fund has thrived.
And what year was this? What year did the Medallion Fund start?
I don't know, I don't remember even roughly when it started.
Was this while you were still at Stony Brook, or this was after?
No, I had been away from Stony Brook for six or seven years. So probably I was 40, 45 maybe, years old. So I was born in '38, 45 and 38 is something. It's '78, '83, or maybe it was 1983. But anyway, the Medallion Fund after that, we'd never look back, and it just got better and better and better, and I hired more and more people. And it was all— And I was only hiring scientists. And physicists, astronomers, mathematicians, statisticians, those kinds of folks, to work on this.
Jim, when you left Stony Brook, did you think you were leaving academic science behind? That you were not going to be doing academic math again?
Yes. Yeah, I... That's right.
It must have been exciting for you to pursue these new pursuits, but did you have mixed feelings at all about leaving math at that level behind?
No. I didn't have any mixed feelings. I was doing something that was exciting to me, and it was mathematical in the sense that these, you know, these little predictions that you're trying to make were all mathematically developed, but you didn't need, you know, topology or any highfalutin math. It's just with the statistics and you wanted to find predictive signals. And you wanted to find more and more of them, and that's really what we did. And so I was—
And perhaps you were satisfied with your contributions in academic mathematics at that point?
I was. Now it turns out that I did go back to mathematics some years later. I've had some bad luck in my life. I've lost two sons. The first in a bicycle accident, and the second in a swimming accident. And when I lost the second son, of course I was very depressed. I was with— this was with my second wife. And happily I'm still with her. But we were very depressed, and I thought maybe we should— Weekends were really dismal, so I said, "Well, why don't we get a house down in Florida, and we can go there weekends and maybe a different environment would be fine." And we did.
But I started thinking about math again, about a problem that I had left years ago. It was good to go back to math, because it's sort of a cocoon. I mean you start thinking about it and then it takes your mind off other things, and you're just thinking about the math, thinking about the math. And so I got back to it, and I ended up working with a guy named Dennis Sullivan. You may have heard of him, he's a famous mathematician, and a good friend. And I had reached a point where I needed to get some information, so I went to Dennis and said, "Is such and such true?" And he said yes, and I said, "Oh, great. Then this covers the rational case." Rational numbers. But I needed it to work on integers, and I said, "Well, and how about this? Is this true?" He said, "Oh, that's really hard. I don't know. Why are you asking me these questions?" And I told him I was trying to prove X, Y, and Z. We started working together, and we produced a very nice paper. I was very pleased with it. So I did go back to mathematics. And I worked with Dennis on and off for, I don't know, ten years. But mostly I was just, you know, still with Renaissance. And then eventually I left Renaissance and I still own a big share of the company, but we started the foundation, and I've been here ever since.
Jim, when you say that math can be like a cocoon, I wonder if that's influenced at all by the fact that, in the world of investments, there's all kinds of non-mathematical and negative things to deal with, like greed and fear and narrow-mindedness, that might not really be a part of the world of math?
It isn't. That's right, that's right. You know, math has its own problems, but you can get stuck on something, and I did get stuck on something, and some years ago... So, you know, it was a problem that I thought was very interesting, and it's still an open problem. So at least I was thinking about a good (laughs) tough problem, because it still hasn't been solved. I can almost explain it to you. But if you want an explanation?
I would love one, please.
Okay. So if you, on the two sphere, think of a geodesic triangle. A triangle made of three geodesics, you know what a geodesic is, right?
Now, if the angles are rational multiples of pi, okay? Then the surface area is a rational multiple of the area of the sphere itself. Okay, so if the angles are rational, then the area is rational, and that's due to something called the Gauss–Bonnet theorem, and which is a famous theorem, and so... But what about the three sphere or higher dimensional spheres? Let's look at the three sphere. And look at a simplex. A geodesic simplex on a three sphere. Now, that has six dihedral angles, angles between the faces. Okay? And there are six of them, you know, one, two, three, four, five, six, for a tetrahedron. And is the same true? As if it has rational angles, would its volume be a rational fraction of the volume of the three sphere? Nobody knows the answer to that. In fact, there's... No one knows the answer. And it could be true, it could be true, but we don't know. There are examples where it's true, but those examples are sort of obvious. But and the rest— So I worked on that problem. It's still an open problem. Just for the three sphere, it's an open problem. And so I would think about that from time to time. So that was— But I was stuck on it and stuck on it and finally I said to hell with it, and went on to other things.
Jim, what was your inspiration in terms of hiring? To focus on mathematicians, physicists, astronomers? What was your idea to go outside the traditional world of investment executives in building your company?
Well, because we were starting to— we were already starting to build models, and that was mathematical. And so, I wanted people who could, you know, help in model building, and those people would be scientifically-inclined. And I'm a pretty good recruiter, and we really hired some terrific people at Renaissance, and I like recruiting. I found that when I was chairman at Stony Brook I just loved to find smart guys and bring them into the fold. And I've always wanted to work with very smart people, and if they're smarter than I am, well, okay. Great. (both laugh) I don't think I'm the smartest guy in the world. But I like recruiting, and at the foundation, we've hired some wonderful people.
In fact, yeah— well, go ahead.
Is this to say that in the world of business, you don't have so much regard for people with business degrees? That's not where the real education value is?
Yes. You're right. Now there's nothing wrong with someone getting an MBA and so on, but we never hired anyone from the financial world at Renaissance. We never did. Because they didn't have anything to add, I didn't think. There were people who wrote papers, or departments of finance or something at business schools, and some of these people write papers about predicting the stock market or stuff like that. We looked at a bunch of these papers. They were all wrong. Every paper was wrong. So we stopped bothering looking at these papers because they were wrong. So no. No, here at the foundation, we've created something called the Flatiron Institute. I don't know if you've heard of the Flatiron Institute?
And it's for computational science. And so we have computational biology, computational astrophysics, computational quantum physics, computational mathematics, and the final unit is going to be computational neuroscience. And the people that I brought in to head these [units] are fantastic. They're really great people. And they in turn would hire good people, because they had good taste. So we built up a wonderful thing, this Flatiron Institute. And I'm very proud of it. But it's all because I'd hire someone great in the first place, and then let him do his or her thing. And that's a good way to build something.
Jim, why did you focus on hedge funds for Renaissance?
Well, a hedge fund is nothing but a fund where you're trading something and you get paid. Typically it used to be people would ask me what's a hedge fund. I say, "A hedge fund is two and twenty – a fixed fee of 2% and 20% of profits. But the other kinds of funds are...that I don't know anything about, or I only know about them. There are venture capital funds, that you know, invest in new companies. There are other kinds of funds where you buy companies and sell them or something like that. There are biotech funds. There are all kinds of funds. But most of those involve business. A hedge fund is typically trading. Trading. So, that was, you know. That was what I did.
Jim, you said earlier that your business was quiet, and it didn't attract much attention from Wall Street. Obviously at some point that started to change, even if you didn't want it to change. You were too successful not to be noticed.
Yes, that's right.
When did that happen?
I don't know. Maybe 15 years ago, or... I left the firm 10 years ago. I left when I was 72, I think, and now I'm 82. So about 10 years ago I left. And so we were quite well-known, but the Medallion Fund, we had outside investors of course, but it was growing, and it couldn't manage a huge amount of capital. We realized that. So in '02, we started buying out the outside investors and just kept it for the employees. So by '05, the fund, the Medallion Fund, was all owned inside by employees. And it grew and it grew and it grew and it grew, but we didn’t have any outside investors. The fees that we charged were.... First it was 5 and 20. And then it was 5 and 36. And then 5 and 44. So there was a fixed fee of 5% and the managers got 44% of the profits. And some of my outside investors, while we were raising the fees, said, "That's outrageous. Okay. Can I get more?" So (laughs) but once we threw out, bought out, all the outside investors we still have a fee even though the employees pay it. It gets back to them somehow. So I don't know why I'm talking about that. The Medallion Fund is only insiders, and it's had a wonderful record for many, many years.
Jim, the anecdote about your stockbroker selling his gold lapels and things like that, and what that inspired you to do the day after. What approach have you taken to bubbles generally? Real estate bubble, tech bubble, have there been larger financial issues where you've taken the same approach?
No, I don't think so. I've observed bubbles, but I've never, you know, taken advantage of seeing, "Oh, this is about to collapse." We were lucky with the gold. But the timing was, you know, very fortunate. But no. You know, there have been various bubbles. The first was the tulip craze in Holland in the 1600s, you might have heard of it.
There's a wonderful book called, I think it's called Great Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Have you ever heard of that book?
It's a terrific book. And it shows all these fads that came, you know. Like dueling. You've heard of guys dueling.
Well, people didn't used to duel, and then dueling— Oh, you insulted my wife. I challenge you to a duel! That came. And then after a while, it just went away. I mean, people, they don't duel anymore. Alexander Hamilton was in a duel and lost his life in it. And as a fact, his son before him lost his life in a duel. So that was— Witches. There weren't any witches, then all of a sudden there were witches. And I think the last witch was in 1920 or something. There were witches for a quite a long time and then there weren't any witches. So those are bubbles of a certain sort. These other things are in the book. It's a terrific book. Great Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. There was the South Sea bubble, I don't remember what that was. But so there are bubbles...
Jim, given that the business practices of Medallion are known, but very hard to replicate, what's the secret sauce? Why has it been so difficult for other investors to learn from your approach and replicate it for their own businesses?
They're called Quant Funds. Quantitative funds. And there are some fairly good ones. One of the best is Two Sigma. So other people try to do this stuff. It's not easy. It's not easy to do. You need a huge database; you have to collect a lot of data too. And so but I think we were...A guy named D.E. Shaw, David Shaw, was also early on in the business of quant, quantitative trading, but Renaissance with Medallion just outpaced everybody and continues to, as far as I can tell. The secret sauce is hiring great people, providing a great infrastructure, collaborating across the board, and sharing profits with everyone.
Jim, would you describe your entrée into the world of philanthropy as more sudden or more gradual?
Well, we started... I always gave some money to philanthropy. At a certain point, Marilyn, my wife, said, "Well, why don't we start a foundation?" This was in '94. And I thought it was a good idea because you can give money to your foundation and not spend it right away, but you got a tax deduction for just putting it into the foundation. Of course, you can't take it out of the foundation. So we started this foundation, but I was putting a lot of the Medallion profits into it, so it grew very nicely. And so that was in '94. And we gave to all kinds of things.
But in '03, we decided to focus on science, basic science. And that's what we do. This foundation is focused on basic science. Some of it is translational, like we have a big project in autism, trying to understand, get to the bottom of that, and develop some treatments if possible. But mostly it's math and physics and stuff like that. So, Marilyn, she has a PhD in economics, but she likes science a lot. So, both of us are very... So, there aren't many foundations that are dedicated to science. Howard Hughes, of course. That's all medical science and life science. We're pretty big. We're pretty big. And now, two days ago, Marilyn and I announced that we're going to step down at the end of June, and the way we worked it, she was mostly on the administrative side, and I oversaw all the science. But she also oversaw education and outreach. I don't know if you've seen our magazine, Quanta?
Yeah? Yeah, so she started that. So that's where we divided the work. But now, my title is chair of the board, and her title is president. But we're both stepping down at the end of June, and a fellow named David Spergel, who is a well-known astrophysicist, he's a terrific guy, he is going to head the foundation. So we're going to retire from this but become Co-Chairs of the Board. I don't know, this is my third career, but there it is. David will run it and I'm sure he'll do a stupendous job.
Jim, have you ever been motivated in philanthropy specifically to memorialize your sons and honor their memory?
Yes. In two cases, both cases. We started a park in Stony Brook called Avalon, and it's a beautiful park. It's about 150 acres, maybe 200 by now because we keep adding some land to it. And that was in memory of my son, he wasn't Marilyn's, he was my son from my first marriage. His name was Paul, and he, as I said, died in a bike accident. So he's memorialized that way. And Nick, who was my son along with Marilyn, we have a health type organization in Nepal. It's simply called the Nick Simons Institute there. And we support a lot of hospitals and trainings and things like that. And we go to Nepal once or twice a year to see how things are going. We just had a meeting over Zoom three days ago, and they're doing pretty well during the pandemic. So yes, in those two areas we memorialize. It's, they're not huge things, but they're very nice things. And I don't know if you've ever been to Stony Brook. Where are you based?
We're in College Park, MD.
Say it again?
College Park in Maryland.
Oh College Park, yeah. Well that's where the University of Maryland is I guess, right?
So if you ever get to Stony Brook, take a walk in Avalon Park. It's beautiful.
Okay. Jim, the last topic I want to touch on today, I want to go back to that article that you wrote in opposition to the Vietnam War. Now part of it, obviously, is that you saw a dumb war and you saw a misallocation of resources, and that's not a particularly partisan view to take. But I wonder if before that, or in the years since, you've had a particular ideology or a support for one party over another that really informs the way you see the world, the kinds of organizations that you give to?
Yeah. Well, I'm a Democrat, and historically, or in the last several elections, we've given a lot of money to the Democrats. I think this past election, it was maybe $50 million to some of the PACs and things like that. So yeah, we like that.
And perhaps this allegiance goes all the way back to childhood? To Franklin Roosevelt?
Well, I (laughs) Franklin Roosevelt was in my day, I was a little kid. And I mean I never— We didn't have television then, so I never saw him, but I've always been more on the Democratic side than the Republican side. Although, well, right now, with Trump— But anyway, Trump's out of the picture. We supported Hillary very strongly, and we supported Biden. I'm friends with Chuck Schumer. He's a pretty good friend of mine. So we've been into politics. And we have something called Math for America. I don't know if you've heard of it?
So it's a, right now it's 1,000 teachers of math and science in New York City, in the high schools and junior highs, and there are 1,000, so just 10% of the math and science teachers in New York City, but they actually know their fields. So many people who teach science and math are, you know, teaching is not such a hot— It's not that everybody wants to be a teacher. In fact, you know, it's not very well-paid and so on. But we need good teachers, and these folks get an extra $15,000 a year on top of their salaries. They know the field, they work together, they go to workshops. It's a great organization. And so we fund that. Then the state seeing it, they did— and almost like that, an exact copy of what we do, but it's out of the city. It's in the rest of the New York state. Now, Biden...
I've always wanted this to be a national program. And I tried to get people in the government interested in such a program, and I couldn't get any real interest, so that's why we just started in New York as a pilot. But it's been running for 15 years or more. Maybe 20. But I always wanted it to be a national program. And we showed it to Biden, and he loved it. So it's in his platform to have what's called the “National Science Corps.” And it would be all across the country it would be instead of 1,000 teachers, 50,000 teachers, which is 10% again of all the math and science teachers in the United States. And hopefully he's going to put that into effect. So it would be called the National Science Corps. And sounds good, right? I mean, you can tell your mother you belong to the National Science Corps. She'd like that. So (both laugh) so hopefully we'll have that. It'll cost about, at full bore, I think about $1.2 billion a year. Which is a rounding error in the federal budget, but it's you know, it's not... But anyway, hopefully, I don't know how did we get to that?
Your support for the Democratic party.
Yes, that's right. For the Democratic party.
Jim, on that note, as the saying goes, supporting the Democrats for you has meant voting against your pocketbook over the years. But I wonder if you see the Democratic platform in larger terms as actually being more pro-business?
Well, you know, business has done very well in a number of democratic administrations. Bill Clinton, the economy was very strong under Clinton. So, I don't think that the Republicans are especially good for business. They are, you know, more conservative. Or at least it used to be that. And now, with Trump, of course it was just terrible. But I think Democrats have never been bad for business.
And based on your philanthropic interests, the Democratic party and its interest in making society more equitable, is something that you care very much about.
I do, I do care a lot about it. The difference— I'm trying to phrase it properly. Of income. The income range is the most slanted it's been since 1929. It hit a peak of a lot of rich people, probably because the stock market was going up, and everyone was in the stock market, and then the stock market collapsed, and we had the Depression. And now it's crept back up and we're just about where we were in 1929.
Not a good year to compare us to. (laughs)
No, it isn't, but so yeah, income differential. So probably the tax rate on individuals will increase somewhat under Biden, and that'll level the field a little bit, but where it really needs to be leveled is from the bottom up. We need a minimum wage, a higher minimum wage, and our infrastructure in the United States is badly in need of repair. It's trillions of dollars below where it should be. And it's not just bridges and roads and things like that. It's the power system across the country is kind of shaky. So hopefully we'll have a big infrastructure bill, and that'll be very good because those jobs, many of them, you know, you don't need a PhD to be a construction worker. But they're good jobs which pay quite well. So, if we get into a big infrastructure enterprise, that will bring up the bottom a fair amount. So that would be very good. So, you know, I'm prepared to pay a somewhat higher tax than I would have otherwise.
And Jim, talking about infrastructure and inequality, given that you came of age during the height of American power in the 20th century, are you concerned about where the United States is headed if we don't address these problems?
I am. I am. To a certain extent, we certainly need to spend more on science. It's been flat for a number of years. The Chinese are growing by leaps and bounds building up science, and you know, basic science is you know, the foundation of the economy growth. So I'm hoping that we will spend a lot more on science, and I just joined a committee. I was at my first meeting yesterday of like-minded people, and to get the United States to spend more on science. So the science and whatever. Corporations used to spend more on science than they do. You know, Bell Labs was a fabulous place, and that was the telephone company. But General Electric— look, a lot of companies spent more on science, engineering than they do today. But the NIH has been flat, the NSF has been flat, for a number of years. In particular if you count inflation. So Schumer has a bill that he's pushing called The Endless Frontier. Do you know where that comes from, the Endless Frontier?
After the Second World War, a guy named Vannevar Bush characterized science as the Endless Frontier. We spent a lot on science and engineering during the Second World War, and he felt that we should continue that, and we did. And he called it the Endless Frontier. So Schumer's bill is called the Endless Frontier, and hopefully it'll get passed. And it would create $100 billion outright, take five years for the National Science Foundation to play with. A lot of it on technology, but a fair amount on basic science. So I'd like to see, you know, because the Chinese—
They sure know what they're doing.
And Jim, on that point, thinking about where China is headed in the 21st century, where are the similarities to the Cold War? In other words, when we had Sputnik, it was almost like it was a zero-sum game. Russia's advance was our loss. To what extent do you see that same dynamic at play now with China – where is there competition and where is there cooperation?
You know, I don't know enough about it to talk very intelligently. It's clear that the Chinese are spending a lot on science and building it up. You know, I see the United States— Look, China is five times the size, four times the size of the United States. We have 300 million people, I think they have 1.2 billion or 1.3 billion. India has a lot of people. So relatively speaking, we're not such a big country. But we do have some wonderful things. We have great universities in the United States, and so what I'm hoping, although like Switzerland, it's a small country but it's very prosperous country, because it's focused on what it can do best. And done very well for years, Switzerland. So if you compare, sometimes, the United States could be a very big Switzerland, focusing on education, keeping our great public and private universities, that attracts people to come to the United States, and does a lot of research and so on. So in China with all its people, will, you know, be a very big force. There's nothing we can do about it, but we can, you know, cooperate with them to some extent, so we don't have to fight with them. But we want to stay ahead as long as we can.
And so you largely see your philanthropic interest within a national framework? Within supporting American programs.
Not completely. We give grants outside the country. I don't think we have any in China, but we have grants in Canada, obviously. We have grants in England, France. We put out RFAs, requests for applications, you know, to do this or that, and people can apply. And so we're not solely focused on the United States, although I would say 90% of our spending is in the United States. But we do a lot of collaborations, and we started those probably 15 years ago when— it's a goal-driven thing involving a fair number of scientists who work together to accomplish something over a 10-year period for example.
Our first one was Origins of Life. Everyone would like to know how did life begin, so we have a terrific collaboration on Origins of Life. And we're learning things about how life might have begun, and you know, there's something going to Mars. I think it's been launched already. And our foundation, Origins of Life met with NASA, and we told them where this should land, and they took our advice, and it's in the delta of what was a river zillions of years ago, but the water came into the delta, and it's conceivable that there are microbes or something still living, or living in there, or even— Because that's where those little creatures would get started. Places like that. So that's a collaboration. But we have 20 or so collaborations. And we're building a big telescope project in Chile. And I'm really excited about that. So that will... It's been slowed down by at least a year because of COVID, but it's coming along. It's in the microwave frequency. And have you ever heard of the cosmic microwave background?
Okay, well that's what we're investigating, and we're partnered with Princeton and UC San Diego. Those are the places that are— They've put in some money, but we've put in most of it. But one of the questions will be the search for primordial gravitational waves. The theory, the popular theory now is inflation. It's that, oh, the universe kind of started at a point, and then immediately expanded tremendously fast, unbelievably fast it expanded, and of course is still expanding. And initially there was a big, big bang, a big boom. If that's the case, there should be gravitational waves that were created by that explosion. And they'll be weak, but they should be extant.
And these are waves that the LIGO project has not yet detected?
Oh yeah. They would be much too weak for LIGO. So way too weak. But they'd kind of be everywhere, because well anyway, so by understanding this cosmic microwave background at sufficient detail, we should be able to find them if they exist. Now about three or four years ago, a group from Harvard announced they had discovered these primordial gravitational waves, and everyone got very excited. But it turned out what they were seeing was dust. And they didn't realize that. So, they didn't find them. But so either we'll find them, and the boys will win a Nobel Prize, or we won't find them and then it might be back to the drawing board. I like— You know Paul Steinhardt? You know the physicist Paul Steinhardt?
I know him well. Yes.
Well, he has a very nice theory called the Bouncing Universe.
And it's a cyclic idea. The universe would expand and then contract, and then bounce back, and then contract, and I love that theory. Because the big bang and starting at a point means that time had a beginning. And I hate the idea of time having— We don't expect time to have an end, so why should it have a beginning?
As a mathematician, does that offend your sensibilities, that time has a beginning?
Yeah, well, yeah. You know, I mean you look at the number line, it doesn't start at zero. It starts way back. It doesn't have a starting point. It's just there. So I think that should be the way it is with time. But you know, I'll settle for the Nobel Prize if those guys... I mean I wouldn't get it, but the boys that designed this thing would get it. So that's something that we do, and one of our projects. But we have a lot of projects. A lot of collaborations. I’ll just tell you about the latest. It's called "The Aging Brain." So, it's not what happens while you get Alzheimer's or something like that, but just what happens to our brains as we age. It really is clear, slow down, we're not as smart as we were when we were 60. Then when you're 80, you forget names for example. And so what's happening to our brain as we age? And there's some really great people on this collaboration, and we'll learn something. Maybe we'll even learn how to arrest some of the deterioration. So that I could at least stop forgetting everything that (both laugh) I forget.
Right. Well Jim, we'll pick back up on Tuesday. We'll talk more about the origins of the Simons Foundation and the Flatiron Institute and talk about the way you see your legacy and the most important contributions you've made. So I look forward to picking up then.
Okay, yes. We have another session. Okay.
[End Begin 201217_0401_D][Begin 201222_0403_D]
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is December 22nd, 2020. I'm delighted to be back with Doctor James Simons. Jim, it's great to see you again.
Okay, happy to be here.
All right, so what I'd like to do today is set the stage leading up to 1994 with the creation of the Simons Foundation. And so my question is, obviously before 1994, it's not like you were a stranger to the world of foundations and charitable giving. So my question is, really, and I know this comes from Marilyn. What was the big goal, both in terms of expanding your giving reach, and in terms of doing it more efficiently, with the creation of the Simons Foundation as opposed to simply giving to organizations that were worthy of your generosity?
Well, it was... We were giving here and there, randomly. And Marilyn came up with the idea of starting a foundation. Sort of formalizing our giving. And I liked it very much because I can give money to the foundation, get the tax deduction, and we don't necessarily have to give it out to someone. We can think about where we want to send the money. So we started the foundation. At the time, well, it still is, you know, my Medallion Fund and Renaissance Technology was doing great. Continues to do extremely well. So I just kept pouring out money into the foundation. So the foundation grew and grew and grew. So and that was in '94, but we did not have a theme. It was just, this is a good organization here, and in '03, we determined to focus on science. Scientific research and, you know, mathematics and science. And my kids who had been sort of involved with the foundation were not so happy with that turn of events, because they said, "Well yeah, but what about X or what about Y?" And I said, I remember, "Look, you guys have quite a lot of money yourselves. Start your own foundations. We want to focus on science." And they did. And they have, do work— One of my children is extremely interested in climate change and a great deal of his foundation is focused on climate change, and my daughter is very interested— my older daughter is very interested in early childhood education. Her husband likes science, so they have a science arm and so on, but they have a nice foundation. So we switched to, you know, to be all science, and it's been there ever since.
So I understand the chronology correctly, the kinds of organizations that you gave to, where you say that there wasn't much of a theme. 1994 was not really a big difference then, in other words? You didn't have the foundation before '94, and you really didn't start focusing on science until '03.
And so for that first nine years of the Simons Foundation, you essentially continued to give to the same kinds of organizations generally that you had before 1994?
Yes. And maybe we star— I don't remember really if we started tilting toward science or not. I don't remember. But I do remember that that was— And we did the main thing that we did, is begin to study autism. That's still a big part of the foundation. It's about 20% of the foundation, is understanding autism and trying to, right now, maybe some treatments. It's a very variegated and complex condition, and so we hired a— I gave a couple grants, one of which worked out beautifully. The other two didn't work out at all. But we decided we needed somebody who knew what he was doing, making grants, so I got a search committee up, and I had Paul Nurse, who was head of Rockefeller University, on whose board I sat. And Harold Varmus, well-known guy. And I suggested a third person, Gerry Fischbach, who was just stepping down from being dean of medicine at Columbia, whom I knew slightly. So I invited him to lunch to start discussing whether he would be willing to be on the search committee. But the more we talked about it, the more excited he got. And at a certain point, I said, "Do you want this job?" And he said, "I think I do." So we disbanded the search committee, much to the relief of Nurse and Varmus. Because search committees can drag on and so on.
So this one was cut short, and Gerry came to work for us, and really showed us how to make grants and have workshops and all the rest of the things that we did. So, he was a wonderful guy. He's just retiring now, Gerry. And he was followed by someone else named Louis Reichardt. He stepped down six months ago, and we're searching for a replacement for him. And I think we found the person. But my fingers are crossed. But soon after that, we got into— Well, as I mentioned, we'd already had Math for America. And, having learned about it, Biden's platform shows the National Science Corps, that's what we're calling it, and it would be Math for America all over the United States. There would be 50,000 teachers of math and science as part of this National Science Corps. And it's a nice title, National Science Corps. Your mother would be pleased if you told her you were a member of the National Science Corps. Sounds great. So I'm hoping that Biden honors that, well, that piece of his platform. So I think that will happen. So that'll save me $25 million a year of course, because (laughs) Math for America would get absorbed by that. But nonetheless. So we brought in a guy named David Eisenbud to run math and physical science. And then a woman who's terrific to run life sciences. And 10% of it is education and outreach. And Quanta Magazine, that's been a great success. And Marilyn oversees that. And so it's all science. Science and math.
Jim, I'd like to ask. How do you go from this wonderful idea that Marilyn has in 1994 to one of the largest charitable organizations in the US? I'd like to ask in the context of, you built up an academic math department. You built up many businesses, right? What was the process for building up a charitable foundation? Who were the key people that you brought in, just to get the infrastructure up and running?
Well, Marilyn and I did this together, and she helped a lot with the infrastructure. The way it worked, I oversaw the science, she oversaw the administration of all sorts. And education and outreach, which is her baby. But I oversaw the rest of it. And then we started the Flatiron Institute. Maybe you've heard of the Flatiron Institute?
Of course. Yes.
And that came about because it occurred to me that we might have collaborations. We might do something called collaborations, which were goal-driven things that would last a long time. Maybe ten years. And involved people from all over the country. Maybe even all over the world. Focused on these ideas. And we had a meeting a number of years ago of a bunch of scientists for a weekend to see, is this a good idea? And people said yes, they thought it was a good idea. If this was in place and that was in place and so on. So that sounded good to me. But when we were leaving, this woman, Ingrid Daubechies, was one of the members of the workshop, or the panel or whatever. She said, "Well maybe you should do something in data science." And that sounded reasonable to me because I had made all this money by analyzing data. In Medallion and Renaissance. So I said, "Well, that sounds like a good idea." Maybe she was hoping that we would put up an institute of data science at Duke, where she was a professor.
But I figured we could just do this right in-house. So we started with a guy named Leslie Greengard, who was a very distinguished applied mathematician, but he's also an MD, to put this up. And he hired people and they were doing great things on the biology side. And after maybe two years, I thought, well, we should generalize this idea. Maybe it was almost three years. So let's throw it at other fields. So the next field was astrophysics. We had a workshop to see if that was a good idea. Guy named David Spergel agreed to chair the workshop. And he was a terrific chair of the workshop, and so I said to myself, "Well, if we can get him to run this unit, that would be great." And it took a couple months of convincing him. So he came to us and we built up that.
Then quantum physics was something else we built up. That arose from a collaboration which we still have called Many Electrons. And it's, well, it's condensed matter physics, really, but so we started quantum physics. And again, had a wonderful person to run it. A guy named Antoine George from France. And so that was three units. And then so it was computational biology, computational astrophysics, computational quantum physics. And there was room for one more unit, and everyone, people thought, okay, computational mathematics. That would kind of be glue to hold the whole thing together. So, we started that, but Leslie, he wanted to head that. And so he stepped down and headed, and now heads computational mathematics. And one of the people in his group who was extremely good and senior took it over.
So now we had four units, and the building only held four. But everyone wanted neuroscience. We had room in our main building. A couple of empty floors. So we hired a fellow named Eero Simoncelli. He was at NYU, to run computational neuroscience. He's great. And that's just getting built up now. So the Flatiron Institute is wonderful. It's totally wonderful. I'm more proud of that than almost anything I've ever done, was to create the Flatiron Institute. Of course, Marilyn was on board with it, and we had a rehab building across the street. And it was an old building, but it was half-empty. I wanted to buy it but they wouldn't sell it to me. But they gave me a 50-year lease. So, okay, 50 year lease. But I had to rehabilitate the building and all the rest. I figured it would cost about $50 million to do that. New elevators, everything needed to be replaced. Marilyn on the other hand said, "It's going to cost $100 million." I poo-pooed her, but it did cost $98 million. (both laugh) So she was right. But it's a beautiful building, and it has a dining hall in it... And you know, you ought to come and see it sometime. It's great. So I'm very proud of that. But the foundation is great.
And I stepped away from the Renaissance at a certain point, and left it in very good hands. I still own a lot of the company. And I came to give full time to the foundation. And you know, that's a legacy, and well I hope Renaissance Technologies lasts forever too, but well there it is.
Jim, you have a lot to be proud of. Of all things, why does the Flatiron Institute give you the most to be proud of?
Well, it's right up there with Renaissance. Why? It's unique. There isn't anything quite like it. And luckily, I hired terrific leaders. Which is— And it's working so well. It's just working beautifully. I'm proud of it.
And Jim, this is a theme in your career. From Stony Brook to Wall Street to philanthropy. The key for you has always been your ability to hire the best people.
Absolutely. That is my— That's the way I worked. Hire the best people you possibly can and let them do their thing. And if they're smarter than you are? Great! You know? I'm sure some of the people I've hired are, you know, would do better on an IQ test than I would. But let them do their thing, and it's worked. And those people, because they have to have good taste, would build up the organization, because they do have good taste. And so that's always been my, you know, when I built up the math department at Stony Brook, that was the first time I recruited anybody. But I realized I love recruiting.
I really love recruiting. I love to go out and find smart people and come on, work for me or work with me or whatever. I like recruiting. So of course, during that period I also did the work with Chern, and so it was a very productive period.
And I'm sure, with the creation of the Flatiron Institute, one of the pleasures for you has been getting back into the world of academia?
Yes, to a certain extent. There are lectures all the time, and so on, and I meet with the group leaders every month in each of the divisions, and they tell me what they've been up to. Sometimes I understand it, much of the time I don't. But nonetheless, there it is. So yeah, I mean it's a connection with science. But the whole foundation, of course, is mostly devoted to science.
There are so many exciting things going on in the world of computational power generally. What are some of the areas that serve as an overriding theme that connects all of the Flatiron Institute with regard to computation?
Well, we have a huge computational computer facility. And I forgot to mention that luckily two people came to work for us when it was just Leslie. He hired two people who were absolutely terrific in terms of hardware and software and getting a computing facility up. So and now this facility is enormous. I'm not sure how many cores, but it's thousands, tens of thousands of cores. We have a big facility in San Diego called Popeye, and we're just putting up a facility in New Jersey. And we have a whole basement full of computing. So those guys, it's called the Scientific Computing Core, because they support all of the units. It's about 15 people in that group, as opposed to about 50 in the regular units. But they are stupendous. And I couldn't have done it without those guys. And one of them was head of the computing for one of the two experiments at CERN. There were two experiments, you know, when they were looking for the Higgs boson.
So I asked a friend of mine who happened to be on the other experiment, "Do you know this guy?" His name was Ian Fisk. And she said, "Well, he's not on our experiment. He's on the other one. Our experiment is—" The computing was quite problematic. But she asked her friends who were in the other thing, and they said, "Well, we never had any problems." Now, that's a terrific endorsement, because you don't have any problems? You know? (both laugh) So he was tired of that already, you know the experiments had been done and so on. We visited there a couple years ago, Marilyn and I, and he would go back occasionally. Ian Fisk, just to catch up or do something, whatever. But they told me they idolized him. They just idolized this guy, Ian Fisk. So he's terrific. Particularly in hardware. And the other fellow is Nick Carriero in software. You give him a program and he'll speed it up. No matter what the program is, he'll find a way to make it faster. So we have that, and that's a key part of the institute.
And Jim, in terms of your overall vision of where the Flatiron Institute fits into the mission of the Simons Foundation, I'd like to ask. Of course, a key component of the Flatiron Institute is simply basic science. you know, discovering things through the power of computation. But in what way specifically is there opportunity to integrate the mission of the Simons Foundation with the ways that computational power can positively impact all kinds of social challenges?
Well, remember that the foundation itself is not aiming at society so much as it's just aiming at getting good science done. For biology or physics or whatever. Mathematics. Just getting good science done, supporting that. There are sometimes some interactions between Flatiron and what we're doing across the street. There's a woman named Olga Troyanskaya who's a wonderful geneticist, so she's in the biology group. But she's just wonderful and we did a lot of sequencing in the autism area. Looking for mutations which cause autism. And there's a great many of them, it turns out. But that was on the exome. Do you know what the exome is?
Well, we decided to look at the whole genome, sequence the whole genome and seeing if we can find anything there that we didn't find in the exome. Now, so Olga set herself to that task. Now, at the same time, the head of the SAB for the SFARI for the autism group, who's the president of Rockefeller University, actually. He's a brilliant geneticist. And he's on the SAB. And I told him, "Well, we're going to be looking for outside the exome." He said, "Nah, there's really nothing there. It's going to be a waste of time." I said, "Oh, maybe it is, maybe it won't." I said, "But I bet you it will." So we settled on a dollar bet, he and I. And well, a year later, Olga had cracked this thing wide open, found all kinds of things outside the exome, and one evening there was a dinner at Rockefeller for all of their supporters and so on, and Rick Lifton, the guy I made the bet with, was up at the podium talking, and he looked at me and said, "Oh, I owe you dollar." He said it right out loud to everybody. So I said, "Yes, you do." And I went up to the stage, up to the podium, and he gave me a dollar. And I said, "But I'm going to split this with Olga, you know. I'm only going to keep 50 cents of it, and I'll give her 50 cents." And so, but I was very pleased. But so she's terrific. There's another person in that group who's also terrific, who interacts with some things that we're doing. We support the New York Genome Center. And this guy helps over there, works with a couple of the people. He's a brilliant guy. So there are interactions between people at Flatiron and other things, so.
Jim, I'd like to ask about your long-term vision of the Flatiron Institute as an educational model. Of course, this year in the pandemic, colleges are closing left and right, there's all kinds of budgetary problems. And there's a lot of hand wringing that's going on just with the brick-and-mortar model of higher education. Given that the Flatiron Institute is hiring some of the most impressive professors and it's hosting really top-flight graduate students and postdocs, as a smaller organization
Postdocs, yes. We don't do— Some graduate students hang around, but they don't get degrees from Flatiron.
Right, right. My question is, as a nimble organization, as a smaller organization, what might the Flatiron Institute offer as higher education is going through such existential questions right now?
Well, that's a good question. The science keeps going on full bore, even though people can't come into the office mostly.
It's Zoom calls, but we're doing well. But you're right, some universities have had a lot of trouble. I'm very close, we're very close, with the Stony Brook University, because well you know, I chaired their math department and Marilyn got her degree there, and we met there. So we're very fond of that university. And they've just hired a new president, and boy they're really in trouble. So we created a fund for them, and I think they'll raise $100 million to give to the president so she can do some things that otherwise she couldn't possibly have done. And so to give a firmer footing. It's a state university, of course, and the state is broke. So times aren't good. So we focus on that university, because for obvious reasons, but we can't help everybody in the world, and Flatiron, you know, can interact with, give jobs to some postdocs who might not get jobs at universities because there were no slots. But one of our, in the math and physical science group, grant-giving group, we have done some things that help postdocs in other places. And even an assistant professor, so we're trying to help a little bit, but it's a huge campus, and we can only do a small number of things.
But my broader question is, long-term, do you see the Flatiron Institute as an economic model as an alternative, possibly, to a traditional university education? In other words, extending your curriculum for undergraduates and graduate students? Do you see that in the cards?
Not really. I think if there was any model that there might be, it would be Bell Labs in its heyday. They had mathematicians, they had physicists, they had the works there. And an awful lot of things were accomplished in Bell Labs. Unfortunately, when the telephone company was broken up... So the Bell Labs was not a profit center. But nonetheless, they interacted with others, engineering people and so on, so once the telephone company was broken up, Bell Labs gradually disappeared. So but that's a model that's not unlike Flatiron. Not unlike Flatiron except that Flatiron is not associated with an organization who could make money out of their work. I mean, although if we can get high temperature superconductivity in the quantum physics unit, well that would be worth a lot of money to the foundation, anyway. If we had a patent on that. So I keep saying when are you going to get that? But it's pretty hard row to hoe. Are you a physicist?
I'm a historian of physics.
Oh, that's right. You're a historian of physics. Well, but you must know about Bell Labs, you've certainly heard of that.
So that's the, I think, the best analogy to Flatiron.
Jim, what opportunities have you seen, if that's something that is of interest to you, to merge your interests in Democratic politics and science? In other words, one of the very disquieting lessons of 2020 was how politicized science can get with regard to, you know, for example mask wearing, understanding how dangerous COVID-19 is. Do you see opportunities to merge those interests of yours?
Only to the extent that we were very generous contributors to democrats. I think we gave them maybe $40 million or something like that in this last election. And I know Biden to some extent and of course, I told you, he was going to do Math for America across the country, hopefully. And Schumer has a plan of $100 billion for the NSF, National Science Foundation. $100 billion over five years, and much of this will be technology, but a fair amount would be basic science. So we're helping him craft that. Or a couple guys from, I don't know if— Well, David Spergel and Bill Press. I don't know if you know who Bill Press is?
I do. I know him well.
Oh, you know him well? So they're helping, or they helped him craft this thing. Along with the head of MIT, I have to give him some credit too. So this is, hopefully, this bill will pass. And we'll have a little jolt upwards in science. It's all for the math and physical science, it's not— Well, whatever the National Science Foundation does. They do a little bit of life science, but most of that comes out of the NIH, I believe. So I'd like to see the country spend more on science. And kids learn more science.
Are you generally optimistic that with Biden coming to the White House, that these things will come to fruition?
Well, I'm certainly more optimistic than I was when Trump was in power. I'm reasonably optimistic. Hopefully, although it's hardly clear, the Democrats will get control of the Senate. Those two elections are coming up in 15 days or so. But I think we'll certainly be better under Biden. And I think we will see more science, and other things too. I mean, he wasn't elected just to help science. He will certainly go back to the Paris Accord. He's very sensitive to climate change. And well, climate change is a really big deal. I mean, I'm almost 83 so it's probably not going to affect me, but it'll affect my grandchildren pretty much. And I'm sure you don't have grandchildren, but maybe one of these days you will. (both laugh) And so you know what's happening.
Absolutely. It's real.
So hopefully, we can survive this and get mostly electric cars on the road and the wind power and all kinds of things that we can certainly do in our own country to reduce CO2 emissions considerably. And Biden is all for that, as opposed to Trump.
Jim, I'd like to ask you about the unique award structure of the Simons Investigators. When you win an award with the Simons Foundation, it's $100,000 renewable for five years. What's the thinking behind that structure, as opposed to a one-time cash award?
Well, it's $100,000 a year for five years. That's a Simons Investigator. Well, that is a cash award. It's not to pay their salary, it's to acquire postdocs and enlarge their reach to some extent. And it's a very good program. People love it. Love to become such an investigator. We use that word "investigator," that's what Howard Hughes calls its people, investigators. Howard Hughes Investigators. Couldn't think of a better name, so we just called them Simons Investigators. And yeah, that's a nice program.
It's a relatively new program. I'm wondering if there's any research that has been supported as a result of this that you're most interested in or proud of?
That's a very good question. And from time to time, I hear about this, I hear about that. But... I should learn more about what our investigators are doing. I can't keep up with everything, but they're obviously doing good stuff. But exactly what they've accomplished, I don't know. If I'd known you were going to ask this question, I would have asked (laughs) the guy who's in charge of the program, "Hey, have these guys done anything of interest?" I need to report back to you. But I don't know.
Well, I can assure you that a lot of them are doing a lot of great stuff as a result of the generosity of the Foundation. There's no doubt about that.
I think so. Right. I believe that.
Jim, to go back to autism, there are so many things to focus your efforts on. Is there a personal dimension, or a particularly scholarly interest that led the Foundation to spend so much time—
—and support on autism?
Yes, one of our relatives has it. We have a relative who has autism, a girl, and that made us want to understand this condition. And so that's what led us to this. And we're learning a lot. We have a trial. It's delayed because of COVID, but we have a trial, which I think is going to be a success. And I'll tell you why. We have two kinds of neurons, excitatory and inhibitory. Every neuron is one of those two. Your excitatory neuron, when it fires, it tells the guys downstream a bit, "You fire too." An inhibitory neuron, when it fires, downstream it's a, "Cool it. Don't be in such a rush." There's a balance. There are many more excitatory neurons than inhibitory neurons, but the inhibitory neurons have a longer reach, and there's a balance there. And you know, evolution produced this situation as a balance.
Now, it turns out that a large percentage of people with autism have an e-i imbalance. And it's because the inhibitory side is not really doing its job. Now, the mediator, the chemical that they secrete, is called GABA. Stands for something, I don't know what it is. G-A-B-A. And GABA at the synapse is taken up by a receptor. And so we have a, there's a drug that we developed that is an agonist, it means it helps it more. It's an agonist for the GABA receptors. So now, when a GABA is secreted, the receptor will really want to lap that up as opposed to not so much lapping it up. And we've tried this on mouse models, and it was very successful. The mouse models of autism. So now it's a trial has begun, slowed down considerably because of COVID, but by the end of this year, I think the trial will have been completed. And because there are so many people with autism who have this particular thing, this particular e-i imbalance, I'm hopeful that a meaningful fraction of them will be helped by this drug. So this is the first drug that we've looked at that we thought had a chance to do things. But there will be more coming, coming down the pipe, we hope.
Jim, I'm curious – before you got involved in autism research if you had an appreciation for what an extraordinarily complex and difficult condition this is to understand?
No, I wasn't. We started studying it and we had a workshop, it was 15 years ago, so I don't remember when. And had a workshop and we had some neuroscientists there and some people who worked in the field. And we came away with three things. One, it's highly genetic. Identical twins are 90% concordant, if one twin has it, the other twin has it. Whereas fraternal twins are the same as just siblings. They're not... So it's clearly genetic, and in fact, the first gene had been discovered by a Frenchman. I can't remember his name, but in some autistic people, he discovered that there was a serious mutation in this particular gene, so we already knew one gene. It's highly genetic, and the second takeaway was, most of the people who were working in the field were no very good. We said okay, what we want to do is bring good people into the field, and focus on genetics, while we know that there's something to get your teeth into. And we did.
And I gave three grants, and one of which turned out to be terrific. The other two were useless, but the terrific one was from a guy named Mike Wigler at Cold Spring Harbor Labs, whom I knew slightly. And he guessed that there might be copy number variations. A copy number variation is when you have some extra genes or you're missing some genes altogether. And he thought that there, we could find copy number variations. He got a big data set, and sure enough, copy number variations in autism were ten times as common as copy number variations in the normal population. So, and then he went ahead and helped us make a collection of people and he thought that many of the mutations, there would be mutations, maybe of them would be de novo, as a copy number variation could be de novo. That means it's not inherited from your parents. It's just, you know, something that sperm was bad, or the egg was bad, and mutated somehow.
And that collection, which is called the Simons Simplex Collection, was you had to have one child with autism only, and at least one normal sibling or more. Because that was the best way to look for de novo mutations. And we had almost 3,000 families sign up for this. And we did a very good job of phenotyping them and looking for gene, for mutations. We found a bunch, and from that— And Wigler sort of designed that collection, and with that, I mean thousands of papers have been written using that simplex collection. So that's how we got started in autism, and well, we've pushed along.
Jim, were you involved in Louis Reichardt becoming director?
Yes, I hired him. I hired him. Gerry Fischbach was kind of aging out, and I got a search committee together, we looked at a lot of people, but Louis seemed the best choice, and he did a very good job. Do you know him?
No, I mean, I'm familiar with his research, and my question is to you, why did he stand out from the others to you?
Well, he was the best scientist that applied for the job. And he had a nice personality. People liked him. And he was willing to take it. We offered it to a couple other people who didn't want it, and that was good, but Louis came and for six and a half years. But it was time for a change again, and we're searching for his replacement now.
Jim, your emphasis was on the genetic components, or understanding autism genetically. I wonder in what ways is the Simons Foundation also interested in behavioral or psychological aspects, or therapies for autism?
Well, we'd like to— Well, first of all, it's not all genetic.
In fact, it's probably only half genetic. And half environmental. And the environment that I'm thinking of is in the woman's womb. When the baby is gestating. We know that if a woman gets sick of some sort or other, she's more likely to have an autistic child. We know that premature babies are much more likely, maybe two or three times more likely, to be autistic than babies that are carried to full term. So something's going on inside the mother's body. Now again, Wigler has a theory that the father and the mother have genomes which kind of conflict, to the point where, see, the mother initially, her body sees the fetus as a foreign object, and the immune system is supposed to go ahead and rid itself of foreign objects, but the way things work, the immune system says, "Oh, oh, this one I have to leave alone." So the fetus is allowed to— but if that system gets out of sync, then it turns out that then the mother's immune system could, in some ways, attack the fetus. Maybe so badly that she has a miscarriage, or that there's just some things that went awry with that. That's Wigler's idea. We're chasing that down and seeing how much truth there is to that. And I think it's a good idea, and we'll know in a while whether that one really is a good idea. And so I don't remember what your question was, but—
That's it, that's it.
That's the answer. You find a question to which that's the answer.
(laughs) Jim, in terms of the therapies or the drugs, is the goal to essentially— "cure" is a dangerous word. Cure means different things to different people. But in the way that you are looking at providing effective therapies, or clinical responses to autism—
—is the idea that the drug will make autistic people no longer autistic, or that the autism remains, but they can manage the symptoms to better effect?
Well, probably the latter. I don't think that there'll be a drug, or who knows, that will just make you completely without autism. But I think there can be drugs that mitigate the abnormalities. It's not a— we don't refer to it as a cure. We call it treatment.
A treatment. And so we're hoping that we find some treatments. And some people, high-functioning people with autism will sometimes say, "Well, I'm happy the way I am. I don't think this is an illness." So, you know, okay. But most people are not high functioning. Some people can't talk. Many seriously affected people with autism can't talk. They can't read. Or they have very bad motor control. They're... an awkward gait, is the least of it. You know, they just have poor motor control. Fine motor control or gross motor control or both. And of course, many people with autism have low IQs. And those aren't highly correlated. About 40% or 50% of people with autism have reduced IQ, and about 50% or more have poor motor control. And these do overlap, but they're not correlated. But they do overlap, so some people have both, but most people have one or the other. And about 10% don't have either. They just have poor social skills, and that's kind of the definition of autism, poor social skills, but they have all kinds of other problems besides that. It turns out that more and more people... like mental retardation has gone way down, but autism has gone way up, because people who had previously been called "mentally retarded," they throw them in the autism bucket. And other things as well. So people thought for a number of years, "Oh, autism. It's growing and growing." But it isn't. It's just more and more things are being called autism.
It's a classification issue.
Yes, it's a classification issue.
Jim, in terms of your goals and timeframes, and bringing a drug to market, what kind of horizon are you aiming for? Five years? Ten years?
Well, if the drug we're testing now works, it could be in the market in a year. Or maybe even less. In this case, we didn't work with a drug company at all. We just... Well, it's a long story. But we own the patent to this drug, but we're not trying to make money off of it. If it works, we would get some drug company to distribute it. But this is the only treatment that we've found so far, but I'm hopeful that we will find others.
Jim, in terms of the question of not particularly partnering with a drug company, it seems that there's a theme that runs throughout your career. In other words, Medallion is a self-contained entity. And so much of the Simons Foundation conducts its research in-house, and that you aren't particularly partnering in the world of computation with, for example, IBM or Oak Ridge or Google. Can you describe what the value is in keeping so much of these initiatives in-house? Why are you more likely to do things in-house as opposed to establishing those strategic partnerships with other large-scale players in the field?
Well, that's not completely true, because we do have collaborations. Many collaborations. And that's not in-house. That's people from outside who form these collaborations. So and that's where a lot of research gets done. Now, there are... the topics are not necessarily world changing. One of my favorites is Origins of Life. Now, everyone wants to know where did life come from, right? So that's been going for about ten years. And we're making some progress, but it's all people outside the Foundation, they just get grants to do these studies. And they collaborate with each other. We have, I don't know, 40, 50? 40 collaborations going on at the same time, and it's all out of house. So we, you know, collaborate. The research is not done in-house at all. It's just these folks.
The Global Brain is a big collaboration that we have. You know, how does the brain work as a whole? You know, understanding the brain is a big challenge. The brain is the only part of our body for which we don't have a functional description. You know, we could make skin, we can make a heart, we could probably make lungs or even a liver. We know how they work. We know how they work. It might be extremely expensive to fabricate a liver, but it's not out of the question, because we understand how the liver works or the pancreas. But we don't understand how the brain works. We understand the pieces, but we don't, you know, it's like looking at a computer and saying, "Oh, here's a piece, here's a piece." Well, that's not going to explain how a computer works.
So we don't understand how the brain works and I think it'll be a long time before we do, but we will. I'm not going to live to see it, but you're not going to live to see it I don't think. It might be 100 years before we really understand the brain. The other big question is the Origin of the Universe. As I mentioned, we're putting up a big telescope project to study that question, and I'm very excited about that. It's going to be on the top of Chile, 17,500 feet up in the Atacama Desert. And it's in the microwave frequency.
And we're looking at the cosmic microwave background. And one of the big goals is to see if there really were primordial gravitational waves. The current theory is called inflation, that the universe more or less started with a point and expanded tremendously in the first teeny-weeny-weeny fraction of a second. Now, if that happened, it would have caused gravitational waves. They're called primordial gravitational waves, right from the beginning. They'd be very weak, but they should be discoverable by analyzing the cosmic microwave background sufficiently well. And our array of telescopes will have the power to discover them if they're there. But if they're not there, then other theories will come to the fore. So to me, I think this should always have been going on and always will be there, but we'll find out with this telescope project.
Jim, on the question of collaborations, where you do see opportunity for those strategic partnerships, generally has it been most productive and meaningful to partner with private industry, with academia, or with government?
Only academia. With a few exceptions. We have a couple of joint projects with the NSF, National Science Foundation. We're doing two things with them. But certainly not business. It's really academia, these are all academics that are... Where else are scientists? Where are you going to find scientists except the academies? Of course, the national labs have some scientists, and we haven't done anything in collaboration with the national labs.
There is, though, there is still some industrial research. For example, Google and IBM. You don't see opportunity to partner with organizations that are working on quantum computing, for example?
No. No, I don't think we want to collaborate with a company. Quantum computing, hopefully that will come to pass. It turns out that it uses some of my math, the Chern-Simons theory is involved in quantum computing.
So okay, great. But it's a hard row to hoe, this quantum computing, but I guess we'll crack it, and there will be quantum computing. But that's, you know, sort of industrial, and I don't think we... First of all, we don't have any labs at Flatiron. I didn't want to build laboratories. That's expensive, and there's plenty of laboratories that people can work with. So a lot of our folks partner up with people with labs, especially the biology group. And work with people who do have laboratories to test out theories and this sort of thing or other. But they're academic labs. They're not industrial labs. It's never occurred to us to work with IBM or Google or anybody. Maybe in the future, we might. You may have heard that next July, both Marilyn and I are stepping down and David Spergel will be president of the Foundation.
And he'll run the whole show. Marilyn and I kind of split it. I oversee the science and she oversees the administration and outreach and that stuff. But Spergel will have the whole kit and caboodle. And Marilyn and I—
Jim, this is looking into the future, so you can't know how you'll feel yet, but do you think this will be harder to step away from than Renaissance was for you?
No. I mean, I'll hang around. Marilyn and I will both be co-chairs. Marilyn has some work that she wants to do. I've been thinking of writing my memoirs or something like that. But I'll hang around. I'll go to talks. I think the world of Spergel and I think he's going to do a great job. And he's imaginative.
Well, at that time, he didn't tell you that he was going to become the president of the Foundation, or did he?
He did, on a private basis. On the basis of it not being publicized before the announcement.
I see, okay. Well, it was just announced a couple weeks ago. So how did that interview go?
It was wonderful. He's great.
He's brilliant and I'm very excited for him.
Yeah, well me too. And he's very excited.
Jim, the last item I want to talk about with regard to the Simons Foundation before I ask you some legacy kinds of questions, the Simons Foundation has been very involved in making science more inclusive for under-represented groups. Women and African Americans, for example. I know that the Simons Foundation has done some partnership work with the National Society of Black Physicists, and my—
I'm an honorary member of the National Society, yeah.
Yeah, I love it. I love it. And I'm very proud. My organization, the American Institute of Physics, has taken leadership— many aspects of leadership work in promoting inclusivity in the field. 2020 has been a year of reckoning, racially, in the United States, and science has been no exception. And of course, the Simons Foundation has been ahead of the curve in this regard. It has recognized the importance of diversity in science. So I wonder if you can talk about some of the work that the Simons Foundation has done in this regard, and what some of your motivations have been and your goals looking to the future.
Well, I don't want to say that historically we've been very sensitive to this issue, because we haven't. We haven't. It's not like we don't want any Black scientists around, or whatever, but we haven't focused on this issue until this past year. And all of a sudden, everyone is thinking about it, and we're not an exception. We brought a terrific Black scientist to our board, a guy named Emory Brown, who's a member of all three national academies. And he's a wonderful guy. And he immediately accepted the invitation to join us. We've always had a good supply of women at Flatiron. David [Spergel] has a lot of women, and the other units have a fair number of women, and I don't think that they're going out of their way to find women. And I think that there are just some very good women.
And in particular, in the life sciences, there are exceptional women. That's been going on for a long time. But in the astronomy unit, I think 40% are female. I think. And quantum physics is a different story. I don't think women like that field so much. But we still have three or four women in the quantum field. So you know, I think women like some things more than they like other things. We're all human beings, and you know, not so many men want to be hairdressers, and not so many women want to be bouncers at bars. But in the case of women, I think we certainly are doing fine on the science side, and of course on the administrative side. With respect to Black people, we are having some programs. We had a very effect program last summer of young Black kids. And we had mentors, and they came in through the Association of Black Physicists. They recommended these kids. And that was a very successful program, and we're going to do that again this summer, I think with more people. And we have a program which, in math and physical science, which will tend to try to get— it's not only for Black people. They're very encouraged to become part of this program if they could, you know, make the grade. And so I think we're doing our part. Marilyn is more involved in it than I am. But you know... There's four letters I'm trying to think of what they are. Inclusion, blah blah blah, I don't know what the things are. But I think we're, like many foundations, we're making efforts that we would not make before to be inclusive.
And to be named an honorary member of the National Society of Black Physicists, for a Jewish guy from Boston, this is no small feat.
Well, in fact they asked me to give the keynote speech last year at their last annual meeting. They didn't have an annual meeting this year because, well, maybe it was over Zoom. But they asked me to give the keynote talk, and so it was over breakfast. So I got up there and said, "Well, I don't know exactly what I'm doing here, I'm not a physicist and I'm not Black. But," I said, "I thought about what is an African American? Now, an African American is someone who traces his ancestors to Africa. But we all came out of Africa, so I can consider myself an African American." We did all come out of Africa. And then I gave a talk and it went well, and I had a nice day. Spent a lot of time with some of the younger people. So I was very pleased to see all these Black kids who really liked physics.
And Jim, the connection to Math for America is very strong, because so much of the motivation for that program stems from inequality and racial injustice in education, starting in kindergarten even.
Well, that's true. That's true. And we have quite a number of members. Teachers in the Core who are Black. Not as many as we should have, but it's certainly a reasonable number. And a lot of our teachers want to go be placed in schools that are "bad" schools. Not, you know, the weaker schools. Difficult schools. A surprising number want to be in such schools. So we're, yeah, it's a great organization, Math for America. It really is. And it's been aware of this issue for a long time.
Jim, for the last part of our talk, I'd like to ask a few broadly retrospective questions, and then something looking forward. So my first question is, the big themes of your life and career seem like they can be split into three basic categories— your professional life, of course. Math, and then business, and then philanthropy.
What do you see as the connecting lines that have been present throughout your life, throughout your professional life that connect all of these endeavors?
Well, I certainly like math, but I also kind of like money. And so... I liked recruiting, I like doing math, I won the Veblen Prize, so on. And the math I did was very good, as things go. But I always thought it would be nice to be rich. And I don't know why. And well, I guess, there's nothing unusual about wanting to be rich. No one wants to be poor, so, okay, being rich is nice. So I had that thought. I helped, encouraged a couple of my Columbian friends from MIT to start a business. I think I might have told you about that. And that eventually did very well, when we sold a piece and then I had some money and thought it would be interesting to— In fact, they asked me to manage this money. I was still doing, a mathematician. And I agreed to do that, and so I'd been interested in trading at the time, but I left math. I was up against a problem that I just couldn't solve. I was getting very frustrated. And so I thought I would just try investing and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because we did well. So I just slipped into this next career and merged it a little bit with math because at a certain point it was all mathematical, all the trading, and we hired a lot of physicists and computer scientists and so on. So the science and math was ever-present in Renaissance. At least, once it really got going. At first it was just basic thinking, but so the math part didn't really leave me, but it became this application to making money. And as for philanthropy, I couldn't see what else I could do with the money.
But Jim, you didn't have to be so active. You could have just given it away and let other people worry about it.
I could have, but I really enjoyed the grant making and seeing the fruits of my philanthropy, and Marilyn—
And the philanthropy was clearly so much more successful as a result of your active management in the whole endeavor.
Well I think so. But my wife played a very big role.
Of course. As a partnership, I mean.
Yeah. Yes, as a partnership, I think we did very well. And well, I just like it. I just like it.
Jim, you're humble, so I'll say it for you. You're extraordinarily generous, and you're extraordinarily good. And I want to come back to, from our first discussion, where you shared with me that, you know, after the bar mitzvah you couldn't wait to get out of synagogue. It wasn't for you. You wanted to leave, right? But just wanting to get out of synagogue doesn't mean that necessarily morals or being a good person was not important to you, and so I'd like to ask. Despite the fact that you didn't want to stay close religiously, do you consider yourself a spiritual person at all? And is doing good and being a moral person, do you understand that at all in a spiritual framework?
No. I don't. I don't... It's not a spiritual framework. It makes me feel good, to give away this money and see that it's going to a good cause, and in particular with science, learning things, like our telescope project I'm very excited about, and so on. But I don't have a... it's not spiritual. You know, one of these days I'm going to die. I doubt very much that I'll find myself in heaven.
You're not motivated by some reward in the next life, that's not your bag?
That is not my bag. Maybe there will be a next life. I wrote a short story. I'll send you the short story that I wrote. That you might enjoy, which has to do with— well, you'll see what it has to do with.
Jim, for my last question looking forward, what else do you want to accomplish? What else is there for you? You've done so much. How do you want to remain active? How do you want to continue to have a positive impact in so many areas of society?
Well, of course, I'll hang around here in this set of offices that I'm at, because this is where the money gets invested. And I have a role in that. So it's in the same building that the Foundation is in, but so I'll hang around here some and make sure that the investment portfolio is going okay. I thought of writing a book, my memoirs or something like that, and I have had an interesting life. And so it might be fun to write a book. A book was written about me. Maybe you saw it?
Yeah, it was okay. I didn't want the guy to write it, because I didn't want any secrets to get out of Renaissance, because he tried to interview a lot of people, but there weren't any secrets [that he was able to get]. So I've thought about writing a book. And maybe doing more traveling. Marilyn's going to be busy. She's building a greenhouse out on Long Island. She wants to do some experiments with plants. And she's chair of the board of Cold Spring Harbor and that's something that she likes very much. So, well, I'm not sure what I'll do. We have a beautiful boat, and we'll probably travel more on the boat. And hopefully age gracefully and not get Alzheimer's or anything like that. And keep my wits about me. And one day, not wake up. That's all.
Jim, I want to thank you for spending all this time with me. It's been a tremendous honor and a pleasure to learn from you and to hear about all of your experiences. So thank you so much.
Oh, okay, well thank you. This was fun.