“To promote a deeper understanding of our world”, Canada may need a Jim Simons

The news may come as a shock to the Dean of U. Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Roger Martin, and all those who have been preaching to the Canadian government that “what makes a country prosperous is not investment in science and technology,” but “businesses having unique products and processes that a customer needs.” Jim Simons has done it again, and has donated $60 million for the establishment of an Institute for the Theory of Computing at UC-Berkeley. And guess what! Google, IBM, Yahoo and Microsoft have all expressed interest in collaborating. Neither the donation, nor the interest of these corporate leaders come as a surprise to the world’s mathematical sciences community. Indeed, these corporations never hid their addiction to mathematical advances nor their dependence on mathematical talent, and the donation is but a drop in the bucket of what Jim Simons had already contributed intellectually and financially to advanced basic research.

James H. Simons, is well known to the mathematical, physical and computational sciences communities, but also to those who are doing research on Autism. He has already donated more than $150-million to Stony Brook University alone, including a huge contribution to its Simons Center for Geometry and Physics. He has also donated to UC-Berkeley and MIT, but also to the Mathematical Science Research Institute (MSRI), to Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS), and even to the Beirut-based Center for Advanced Mathematical Sciences (CAMS) –the latter for the establishment of the Michael Attiyah Chair.

Jim and Marilyn Simons had established and endowed the Simons Foundation with “a mission to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences”. The Foundation “sponsors a range of programs that aim to promote a deeper understanding of our world.” In 2006, he recruited my good friend and my accomplice in the founding of the Banff International Research Station, David Eisenbud, to be the Foundation’s first director for Mathematics and the Physical Sciences (MPS).

The Simons Foundation is essentially a counterpart/supplement to the National Science Foundation. In 2010, its MPS program issued its first requests for grant applications for post-doctoral fellowships, travel grants to promote collaboration between researchers, endowed chairs to create professorships that combine mathematics with other fields (such as energy, and the biological sciences), and now a major grant to endow an institute for theoretical computer science. Other projects include the Africa Mathematics Project, intended to bolster mathematics scholarship on the African continent, and an oral history project consisting of interviews with renowned mathematicians and scientists.

The Simons Foundation also supports the life sciences by funding research that promotes synergy between biology and mathematics. Such projects have included quantitative biology programs at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHES), the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), and the Rockefeller University. The Foundation’s single largest initiative has been in autism research, which seeks to improve the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders.

But who is Jim Simons? Well, the man is a practicing mathematician, a differential geometer to be precise. But you guessed it, this is not how he made his fortune. And no, he didn’t make his billions by writing a simpleton computer program for a glorified super webpage à la Mark Zuckerberg.

In 1968, James Simons was simply the chairman of the mathematics department at Stony Brook University. For his seminal work on differential geometry, especially his discovery with Shiing-Shen Chern of the so-called “Chern-Simons invariants,” he was awarded the 1976 Oswald Veblen Prize by the American Mathematical Society. This work had made him a household name among mathematicians and physicists, particularly string theorists. In 1978, he left academia to run an investment fund that traded in commodities and financial instruments on a discretionary basis.

He eventually founded Renaissance Technologies’ hedge funds, which employs mathematical models to analyze and execute trades. Renaissance uses computer-based models to predict price changes in easily traded financial instruments. These models are based on analyzing as much data as can be gathered, then looking for non-random movements to make predictions. To do that, Renaissance mostly employs grads and post-grads in mathematics, physics and statistics.

And do you remember when mathematical models were miscast as villains in some accounts –including those by the NY Times– of the current financial crisis? Well, it turned out that these mathematical models were responsible for keeping the hedge funds of Simons’ firm spectacularly profitable. Forbes magazine estimates his current worth at $10.6 billion. Some people say that, “in a classic case of giving back, profits from those funds are now being used to benefit the discipline from which the models emerged”.

What about this new Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing? Well, it will cover everything from complexity theory, algorithms, machine learning, randomness and pseudo-randomness, zero-knowledge proof, computer networks, to computer vision, robotics, and streaming algorithms.

The institute’s first director? As expected, Simons and Eisenbud went for the very best, Richard Karp, known for his contributions to the theory of algorithms and bio-informatics, for which he received a Turing Award in 1985, The Benjamin Franklin Medal in 2004, and the Kyoto Prize in 2008.

Yes, this country is lucky to have Mike Lazaridis, who has been the patron saint of Theoretical Physics in Canada, including his magic touch to attract government support. But to involve the rest of us in the universal quest for a deeper understanding of our world, Canada may yet need a Jim Simons.

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2 Responses to “To promote a deeper understanding of our world”, Canada may need a Jim Simons

  1. Diana Brydon says:

    Reblogged this on Diana Brydon and commented:
    “Yes, this country is lucky to have Mike Lazaridis, who has been the patron saint of Theoretical Physics in Canada, including his magic touch to attract government support. But to involve the rest of us in the universal quest for a deeper understanding of our world, Canada may yet need a Jim Simons.”

  2. Peter Bell says:

    Always a pleasure to read about Jim Simons. Certainly inspiring. Also interesting to go back and read the post from March 2011 – the ongoing funding changes shed some light on that discussion. One page that jumped out at me on the Simons Foundation page: https://simonsfoundation.org/funding-guidelines/current-funding-opportunities/math-x. Wow – what a compelling premise for a grant.

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