Mathematics, Common Sense, and Good Luck

Collaborate with the best people you possibly can; try at problems for a hell of a long time; be guided by beauty; and hope for some good luck.

On December 9, 2010, MIT and the Dean of Science welcomed Dr. James “Jim” Simons back to campus to give the School of Science Dean’s Colloquium entitled, “Mathematics, Common Sense, and Good Luck: My Life and Careers.” Simons talked about his careers first as a mathematician, then as founder and CEO of a successful hedge fund, and now as a philanthropist. Simons told the packed audience in 10-250 how he was destined for MIT, having known he wanted to be a mathematician since he was a boy. One very late night he was out with friends at the now defunct Brookline deli Jack and Marion’s, and he saw MIT mathematicians Warren Ambrose with Is Singer sitting at a table drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, and doing math on paper napkins. Simons thought that was the “coolest thing” and determined to pursue a career in math.

Simons wrote a famous Ph.D. thesis, taught at MIT, solved prickly geometry problems, and helped build bridges between math and physics. During this phase, he managed to get fired as a cryptanalyst at a Defense Department think tank, after criticizing the pro-Vietnam War stance of his boss, General Maxwell Taylor. After getting really stuck on a problem while Head of Stony Brook’s Math Department, Simons decided to turn his energy to starting a business.

Renaissance Technology was founded when Simons was 38. The investment firm deploys sophisticated, proprietary models to generate astonishing returns (and business envy). According to Emeritus Institute Professor Is Singer who introduced Simons at the start of the colloquium, “Renaissance Technology is the best math and physics department anywhere.” As Simons says modestly, “We have a lot of smart guys.” The firm is notorious for hiring Ph.D.’s in theoretical physics, pure math, and theoretical computer science.

In looking back over his career, Simons said he has been guided by a few principles which he shared with the audience. “Try new things and don’t run with the pack.” This approach, which he recommends, “gives you a chance.” Some other parting tips: collaborate with the best people you possibly can; try at problems “for a hell of a long time;” be guided by beauty; and “hope for some good luck.” 

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