James and Marilyn Simons
James and Marilyn Simons
Amount donated: “well over” $1bn (Forbes, 2016)
Philanthropic Causes: Education, health, scientific research
Region of philanthropic focus: USA, Nepal
Ranking: 50th richest billionaire in the world (Forbes, 2016)
Net Worth: $15.5bn (Forbes, 2016)
Source of wealth: Hedge funds
After a distinguished academic career, mathematician James (Jim) Simons made a fortune through hedge funds, particularly by using mathematical models to guide investments. With his wife Marilyn, he has used his fortune to aid scientific research and to promote mathematics in schools.
Born in 1938, Simons studied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California, completing his doctorate at the age of 23. He worked as a codebreaker with the National Security Agency before teaching mathematics at MIT, Harvard and the State University of New York at Stony Brook (sometimes referred to as Stony Brook University), located on Long Island. He is renowned for his work on the Chern-Simons geometric theory which has had a significant influence on modern physics (“We didn’t know anything about physics,” he later commented, “but that’s the thing about mathematics. You never know where it’s going to go”).
In 1982 he left academia and founded Renaissance Technologies which became one of the first investment management firms to use mathematical models to analyse and determine investment strategies. Employing experts from non-financial backgrounds (particularly mathematicians, physicists and statisticians), the firm was worth an estimated $29bn by the time Simons retired in 2010 at the age of 72.
It was during his time at Stony Brook University that he met his second wife, Marilyn (born in 1951, she was a PhD student at the time). An economist, Marilyn became the driving force behind her husband’s philanthropy, helping him to establish the Simons Foundation (of which she became president) in 1994. “We did not have a vision at the time,” Simons later stated in a rare interview. “Gradually a vision emerged, which was to focus on math and science, to focus on basic research.” The Simons Foundation has funded research into the origins of life, the structure of the early cosmos and the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders.
The Simons’ philanthropy has been heavily influenced by family circumstances. The research into autism owes much to the fact that the couple’s daughter, Audrey, is autistic. Family tragedy has also played a part. In 1996, 34-year-old Paul (one of three children by Jim’s first wife, the computer scientist Barbara Simons) was killed in a road traffic accident on Long Island, while a younger son, 24-year-old Nick, drowned in Bali in 2003. The latter had previously worked in Nepal, and his parents travelled there to establish the Nick Simons Institute through which large donations have been made to Nepalese healthcare.
Their foundation to promote the teaching of mathematics in US schools, Math for America, was established in 2004 to address concerns about the declining numbers of mathematics and science graduates entering the field of education, which traditionally paid less than other career paths. “With all the good will in the world … it’s a tough job and the alternatives are so attractive,” Simons explained in 2006. “Teaching math and science ought to be a professional activity in which those professionals are well-paid and happy to do that as a career.” Math for America awards stipends of up to $100,000 to train high school teachers and supplement their salaries. As of 2014, some 1,100 teachers were involved, mainly in New York but also in Boston and Los Angeles. At a university level, the Stony Brook Foundation was the conduit through which $25m was donated to Stony Brook University in 2006 (two years later, the New York Times estimated that the couple had given almost $100m to the university). In 2012 the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath), another Simons project, opened
in New York City; it attracted a quarter of a million visitors in its first two years.
Jim and Marilyn Simons were awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in 2013. In his acceptance speech, Simons summed up his and his wife’s philanthropy as being: “To fund brilliant scientists in the United States and around the world to carry out basic research on the most fundamental problems … deep and hard questions, but progress on such questions will improve our lives in the way that scientists doing that work can never imagine.”
‘Jim Simons: A rare interview with the mathematician who cracked Wall Street’ (TED Talks, 2015)
William J. Broad, ‘Seeker, Doer, Giver, Ponderer: A Billionaire Mathematician’s Life of Ferocious Curiosity’ (New York Times, 7th July 2014)
‘Putting His Money Where His Math Is’ (Seed Magazine, 19th September 2006)