Billionaire Mathematician Eager to Probe 'Mysteries of the Universe'

Driven in part by a "ferocious sense of curiosity," James H. Simons, founder of one of the world's most successful hedge funds, has given more than $1 billion over the years in support of math and science initiatives, the New York Times reports.

A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Simons received his doctorate in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley at the age of 23; went to work as a code breaker for the Institute for Defense Analyses, a National Security Agency contractor, at the age of 26; and became chairman of the mathematics department at Stony Brook University on Long Island at the age of 30. He subsequently won the Oswald Veblen Prize in Geometry at the age of 37; founded the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, a pioneer in the use of quantitative analysis, at the age of 44; and set up his first charitable foundation at the age of 56. Now 76, Simons continues to serve as board chair of Renaissance Technologies and to publish papers on mathematics, while earlier this year he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Estimated by Forbes to be worth $12.5 billion, Simons ranks as the ninety-third wealthiest person in the world and in 2010 became one of the first individuals to sign the Giving Pledge. Since establishing the New York City-based Simons Foundation in 1994, Simons and his wife, Marilyn, an economist, have awarded more than $1 billion in support of scientists working on questions related to the human genome, the origins of life, the roots of autism, the structure of the early cosmos, and the frontiers of math and computer science, as well as public school math teachers. Indeed, in recent years the Simonses have accelerated their giving to Math for America, which James Simons helped create and which awards stipends and scholarships to high school math and science teachers. In addition, they have helped finance the National Museum of Mathematics, or MoMath; are part of a coalition to double philanthropic support for basic science in the United States over the next ten years; and earlier this week announced a $50 million gift to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to establish the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology.

Their financial and business successes notwithstanding, the Simonses have experienced their share of tragedies, including the deaths of two adult children — tragedies that seem to have left Jim Simons eager to explore what he calls the mysteries of the universe. At the same time, Simons has a casual manner that belies his wide-ranging intellect and enormous success. "He's an individual of enormous talent and accomplishment, yet he's completely unpretentious,” Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist and president of the Rockefeller University, told the Times. "He manages to blend all these admirable qualities."

Simons said he loved math and logic as a boy and would lie in bed thinking about how to give the instruction “pass it on” in a clearly defined way. "One night, I figured it out,” but by morning  could no longer remember his insight. “I wasn’t the fastest guy in the world," Simons said of his youthful math enthusiasms. "I wouldn’t have done well in an Olympiad or a math contest. But I like to ponder. And pondering things, just sort of thinking about it and thinking about it, turns out to be a pretty good approach."