According to Forbes Magazine,
James Harris Simons
has a fortune of $14 billion.
He built it using mathematics。
Should we start at the beginning?
As a child, were you good at mathematics?
Like, was mathematics a natural thing for you?
Yeah, it was very natural,
And I always liked it.
I like counting.
I like continually mutiplying things by two,
although by the time I got to 1,024 or whatever it is,
I was… I had enough of it.
But I like …I like math,
I discovered… as a very young kid maybe 4,
在我很小的时候 大概四岁吧 我发现了
something called Zeno’s paradox.
Do you ever heard of Zeno’s paradox?
My father told me that the car could run out of gas.
And I was disturbed by that notion.
It never occurred to me, but then I thought,
well, it shouldn’t run out.
You could always use half of what it has,
You can use half of that, and then half of that
and if you go on forever, and so it would never run out.
So now, it didn’t occur to me “yes”.
But it wouldn’t get very far, either.
But the idea that in principle, you didn’t have to run out of gas,
was a kind of a profound thought for a very little boy.
Did it feel like this was where your career was going to take you?
Will you like another boy who dreamed of being a
baseball or something?
Oh, no no. The only thing I thought about was I would be a mathematician,
whatever exactly that meant.
I didn’t know quite what it meant except that
mathematics was the only subject I really liked.
After enjoying success studying math at MIT…
Simons was encouraged to head west.
They wanted me to go to Berkeley,
and get away from MITs, meet some new faculty,
cause I was quite close to the MIT faculty and they thought…
I think they didn’t want to get rid of me so much as…
they thought I was probably pretty good.
So, I should get exposed to a certain guy named Chern
who was just coming to Berkeley that year.
And I got this very nice fellowship
and I went there,
I was very eager to work with Chern,
meet Chern, except he wasn’t there.
He celebrated his first year at Berkeley.
He had just come to Berkeley.
He celebrated that first year by taking a sabbatical.
So he wasn’t there.
So I worked with another guy, which was fine.
And by the time Chern came, in the second year,
I was already pretty far along with the these project.
I was giving a seminar
at the beginning of my second year at Berkeley,
and in walked this tall Chinese guy,
and I said to the guy next to me, “Who’s that?”
– “So that’s Chern.” – “That’s Chern?”
– 这就是陈 – 他就是陈？
I didn’t know he was Chinese.
I thought Chern was probably short for Chernovski or something,
or he’s probably some polish guy
who had shortened his name to Chern.
If it had been Chen or Chan,
I would have known it was Chinese.
But Chern with the r? I don’t know.
But anyway, so I met Chern then.
We became friends.
Cause I was much younger than him
but we became friends and later collaborators.
So-called ‘Chern-Simons Forms’ have become
a cornerstone of modern physics.
So we worked together.
And we came up with these results of this whole struction.
In fact, that’s the slides of the presentation
that Chern made at the International Congress in the early 70s.
It was very nice geometry.
I pushed on within it, and we defined some things called differential characters,
which was another chapter.
I was working with the guy named Cheeger.
But the Chern-Simons invariants, about ten years later,
the physicists got a hold of it.
And it seemed to be very good for what ailed them,
or whatever we might have ailed them.
And so, it wasn’t just String theory as I subsequently developed,
it was kind of all areas of physics,
including condensed matter…
even some astronomers seem to wanna look at those terms.
That’s really what’s great about basic science
in this case, mathematics.
I mean, I didn’t know any physics.
It didn’t occur to me that this material that Chern and I had developed
would find use somewhere else altogether.
That happens in basic science all the time
that one guy’s discovery leads to someone else’s invention
and leads to another guy’s machine.
Simons also worked for the Government
as a top-secret codebreaker.
Actually, in the middle of my mathematics career
which ended when I was about 37 or 38,
was that I spent four years at a place called
the Institute for Defense Analysis,
down in Princeton,
which was a super secret government based,
national security agency based,
a place for code cracking.
But I also learned about computers and algorithms.
And I did one thing there that was quite good,
cause I can’t tell you what it was. It’s all classified.
So, I had a good career.
They are both doing mathematics and
learning about the fun of computer modelling.
This knowledge of modelling and computers
led to a business worth billions of dollars.
My father had made a little bit of money.
And, I had the opportunity to try investing it.
And that was interesting.
And I thought , you know, I’m gonna try another career altogether.
And so, I went into the money management business, so to speak.
So you started with some of your dad’s money
and that got you a test for, an interest to that.
Yeah! Some family money.
And then some other people put up some money.
And I did that… no models,
no models for the first two years.
So what were you doing then? You were just using cunning and,
you know, just like normal people do.
Like normal people do.
And I brought in a couple of people to work with me.
And, we were extremely successful.
I think it was just plain good luck
but nonetheless, we were very successful.
But I could see,
but this was a very gut wrenching business.
You know you come in one morning,
you think you’re a genius, the markets are for you.
We were trading currencies and commodities and financial instruments and so on,
not stocks, but those kinds of things.
Then the next morning, you come and you feel like a jerk.
The market’s against you.
It was very gut wrenching.
And in looking at the patterns of prices, I could see
that there was something we could study here,
that there will may be some ways to predict prices,
mathematically or statistically.
And I started working on that.
And then brought in some other people,
and gradually we built models,
and the models got better and better and finally the models replaced the fundamental stuff.
So, it took a while.
I would’ve thought, with your background of mathematician,
this would have almost occurred to you immediately,
like you would have straight away seen this.
What was the two-year delay?
Well, two things.
I saw it pretty early.
and I brought in a guy who was a wonderful guy,
also from the code-cracking place.
And he was… I thought together we’ll start to building models.
That was fairly early.
But it wasn’t right away.
But he got more interested in the fundamental stuff
and he says the models aren’t gonna be very strong and so on, so forth.
So we didn’t get very far.
But I knew there were models to be made
then I brought in another mathematician
and a couple more
and a better computer guy.
And then we started making models which really worked.
But you know, the general…
there’s something called the efficient market theory,
which says that there’s nothing in the data, let’s say price data,
which will indicate anything about the future,
because the prices, sort of, always right
, the price‘s always right in some sense.
But that’s just not true.
So there are anomalies in the data,
even in the price history data.
For one thing, commodities especially, used to trend,
not dramatically trend, but trend.
So if you can get the trend right,
you’d bet on the trend, and you’d make money more often than you wouldn’t,
whether it was going down or going up.
That was an anomaly, in the data.
But gradually, we found more and more,
and more and more anomalies.
None of them is so overwhelming
that you’re going to clean up on a particular anomaly,
cause if they were, other people would have seen them,
so they have to be subtle things.
And you put together a collection of these subtle anomalies
and you begin to get something that will predict pretty well.
Simons has been dubbed the King of Quants by quantative analysts
and The World’s Smartest Billionaire
by the Financial Times.
It’s what’s called machine learning.
So you find things that are predictive.
You might guess,
“Oh, such and such should be predictive, might be predictive”
and you test it out in the computer,
and maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
What discipline of mathematics or disciplines
Is that multidisciplinary or we talking…
It’s mostly statistics.
Mostly statistics and some probability theory.
And but, I can’t get into…
You know what things we do use and what things we don’t use.
We reach for different things
that might come, that might be effective.
I would imagine lots of people want to be financially successful,
most people want that, of course.
And lots of people are good at mathematics
and know a lot about computers,
like you know, at your level, I would imagine.
Why did you do it? Why didn’t someone else do it?
I don’t know. Well, first of all, some other people have done it.
我不知道 首先 有些人已经做过了
I think that we’re…
our firm is better.
But nonetheless, I’m pretty sure of that.
other people have done some very good modelling
and so we’re not alone.
But it’s not easy to do.
And there’s a big barrier to entry.
For example, huge data sets that we’ve collected over the years,
programs that we’ve written to make it really easy to test hypotheses and so on.
The infrastructure is exceptionally good,
so everything is tuned right.
It took years to learn how to do that.
I know you guys made the model.
So you do have the ownership of it and feel proud of it.
But is it hard to follow the model religiously?
Like is it hard for your ego to think
all the success is because of the computer?
Like, and I just sat there and watched.
No, the computer is just a tool that we use to…
I mean, it’s… a good cabinet maker
doesn’t say it’s all because of my wonderful chisel.
You know, you may have a great film equipment
but that’s not why you’re a success at doing what you’re doing.
You’re working with a good equipment,
but, another guy would make a mess of it with the same equipment.
So, no. We don’t feel the computer is doing everything.
Computer does what you tell it to do.
Given that you will put some of it down to luck,
what are you more proud of?
All of this in the business?
Or the mathematics from that first half of your career?
To the extent that I’m proud…
I think I’m proud of both. I think…
yeah, I’ve done some mathematics
and some, it had a positive effect.
I guess I’m proud of that.
And I’ve built a nice business and I’m proud of that.
And I don’t say I’m prouder of one than the other.
And now, for the last number of years,
I’ve been working with my wife on this foundation
which she started actually in 94, with my money.
But nonetheless, she started the foundation,
then I joined.
I got more and more involved
with the foundation as time went on.
And now that’s my main thing.
You know, I’m pretty proud of the foundation.
Let me focus you more on which the mathematics versus the business that
would you trade any or all of your business success
for being the man who cracked the Riemann Hypothesis or something like that?
Ah, that’s a good question.
Well, I trade that for…
Well, I probably trade some of it.
I mean for the Riemann Hypothesis.
It would certainly, I guess, be a thrill to solve the Riemann Hypothesis.
I’m pleased mostly with what,
with the way my career has gone.
Ah! So would I trade part of it
I don’t know. I’ve never looked back and said,
I wish, at least in business,
I wish I had done that or I wish I had done this.
Like that. Whatever it is. I’ve never looked back that way.
Simons now dedicates most of his time to philanthropy.
The foundation is focused on support of scientific research,
primarily basic science but not completely,
cause we have a large autism project,
which involves a lot of basic science
but the treatments are a goal.
But the rest is support of mathematics, physics, computer science,
其它的就对是数学 物理学 计算机科学
biology of all sorts, neuroscience, genetics.
各种生物学 神经科学 遗传学的支持
We support basic science and
that is what we like to do.
There’s a certain amount of outreach we have,
a math or America pro.
We spend maybe 10% or 15%
on the outreach, outreach and education,
but 80% or 85% is supportive basic science.
You put a lot of money into mathematics,
so you’ve got some right to comment on it.
How are you feeling about it?
Oh, I think mathematics is what, is really going quite well,
worldwide the research.
End of it. A lot of new ideas are coming up,
new fields or sort of are flourishing.
It feels like a pretty healthy enterprise to me.
What’s not healthy is the state of mathematics education in our country.
That’s very unhealthy for young people.
That’s why we have started this thing called Math For America and so on.
But we don’t have enough teachers in mathematics who know it,
who know the subject, and even of science.
And that’s for a simple reason.
30 or 40 years ago,
if you knew some mathematics enough to teach,
let’s say in high school,
there weren’t a million other things you could do with that knowledge.
Oh yeah, maybe you could become a professor,
but let’s suppose you’re not quite that level.
But you were good at math and so on.
Being a math teacher was a nice job.
But today, if you know that much mathematics,
you can get a job at Google, you can get a job at IBM,
you can get a job at Goldman Sachs.
I mean there’s a plenty of opportunities
they are going to pay more than being a high school teacher, right?
There weren’t so many when I was going to high school, such thing.
So, the quality of high school teachers in math has declined.
if you know enough to teach in high school,
you know enough to work for Google,
and well, they’re not gonna pay that much in high school.
So how do you redress that?
How do we redress that as a country?
Well… you have…
So we work…
a person works for a combination of
financial reward and respect. Right?
So, a guy becomes Supreme Court Justice.
He’s not doing it because he’s gonna make a fortune,
he’ll be well-paid I suppose.
But you know, it’s Supreme Court justice, everyone says.
It’s a big deal. You have a lot of respect,
and you respect yourself presumably.
So there are many…
so you can’t pay
let’s say high school teachers of math as much
as they would get at Google.
But you can give them a bump, pay them more.
We give people $15,000 a year more than they would make their regular salary.
But we also create a community
of math and science teachers,
which they love
and it makes them feel important,
and they are important.
Do you give your money to basic research,
because you feel somehow indebted to it for your own success?
Or do you do it just like a belief?
Or do you feel like you’re giving something back to us
till what gave something to you?
That’s an interesting question.
I do it cause it feels good.
l like science.
I like to see it flourish.
I like to be around scientists.
I like to learn some new things.
My wife feels the same way. She loves science.
So we’re very happy to do this.
Do I feel I’m giving back? Not especially.
You know, I could give back in a lot of ways.
There’s a lot of things I could do besides support science.
Do you have a favorite number?
Seven. Next question.
Do you have a favorite mathematician?
Well, Archimedes and Euler,
my current favorites.
But maybe you meant somebody…
I’m very impressed with those two guys.
Thank you so much for so much of your time!
Alright, well, this was quite a fun.
According to Forbes Magazine,