Please create an account to participate in the Slashdot moderation system


Forgot your password?
Math The Almighty Buck

The Billionaire Mathematician 96

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-enough-room-in-the-margin-for-all-these-benjamins dept.
An anonymous reader writes Dr. James Simons received his doctorate at the age of 23. He was breaking codes for the NSA at 26, and was put in charge of Stony Brook University's math department at 30. He received the Veblen Prize in Geometry in 1976. Today, he's a multi-billionaire, using his fortune to set up educational foundations for math and science. "His passion, however, is basic research — the risky, freewheeling type. He recently financed new telescopes in the Chilean Andes that will look for faint ripples of light from the Big Bang, the theorized birth of the universe. The afternoon of the interview, he planned to speak to Stanford physicists eager to detect the axion, a ghostly particle thought to permeate the cosmos but long stuck in theoretical limbo. Their endeavor 'could be very exciting,' he said, his mood palpable, like that of a kid in a candy store." Dr. Simons is quick to say this his persistence, more than his intelligence, is key to his success: "I wasn't the fastest guy in the world. 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."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Billionaire Mathematician

Comments Filter:
  • education (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Joe Johnson (3720117) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @02:19AM (#47413177)
    This is why I tell people to stay in school. Even if you're smarter than most, you have a lot to learn.
  • by EuclideanSilence (1968630) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @02:50AM (#47413289)

    Dr. Simons is quick to say this his persistence, more than his intelligence, is key to his success

    So very true. So often those with natural talent give up when they first encounter difficulty, where the slow learners just keep going.

  • by jd (1658) <> on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @03:43AM (#47413427) Homepage Journal

    Humans nearly died out entirely from hunger and thirst, it was visionaries that led them out of a dying region of Africa into Asia, by a route that appeared to defy reason to any non-visionary of the time.

    Pre-humans nearly had their brains the size of a grapefruit and wired backwards. It was visionaries who developed fire, 2.5 million years ago, providing the much-needed nutrition that allowed us to avoid the same fate as every other lineage of hominid.

    Visionaries allowed the Norse to split quartz in a way that permitted them to track the sun even in cloudy skies and well into twilight, giving them greater access to the seas, trade and food than any other society of that time.

    Visionaries developed cities to handle the logistics of the brewing and baking industries, again counter to any "obvious" logic that farming and hunting were how you got food.

    Visionaries are the reason you can post stuff on the Internet, and why persecuted minorities around the world can have a voice and education.

    So don't tell a visionary that he is defying your common sense. His work may have implications for society that you cannot imagine simply because he has the imagination and you don't. That does not mean that it will have such an implication or that he does have that extra imagination. It simply means that visionaries have a track record of saving people from starvation.

    What about normal people? Those are usually the ones who manufacture conditions suitable for mass starvation. They're the ones who create nothing but buy the rights to sue to oblivion those who do. They're the ones who have allowed security holes to develop in critical infrastructure, like nuclear power stations, and then place said infrastructure on the public Internet where anybody can play with it. They're the ones who deny Global Warming and have endangered all life on this planet.

    At this point in history, we'd be better off if the normal people were rounded up, put on some nowhere continent, and left to rot at their own hands. This would also solve much of the operpopulation crisis, as they're also the ones that breed morons like rabbits. If they choose to become civilized, they're free to do so. That would be helpful, in fact. But as long as they remain normal (read: proto-human), their fate is their lookout but they've no business making it everyone else's fate too.

  • by mtthwbrnd (1608651) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @04:46AM (#47413577)

    Everything you write about humanity all those many years ago is pure speculation. I am not going to get into a debate about it with you though because you sound like a bit of a tosser.

    In any event, the post was kind of a joke. Not a serious criticism of your great worship-worthy master "visionary". Now go away and suck on his arse!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @05:48AM (#47413683)
    But then you have to ask: how many people like him failed to achieve anything they wanted because they remained persistent at the wrong thing?
  • by gordo3000 (785698) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @06:44AM (#47413797)

    but trying to play the slow kid isn't exactly working. He finished a PhD at 23! that, if nothing else, tells you just how fast he is. He may not be able to do long division in his head quicker than some, but in his areas of competence, he is an intellectual giant who ALSO happens to work harder than you.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @06:45AM (#47413801)

    It might be more accurate to say that you have to know when to start (not to mention being born at the right time!).

    "Being born at the right time" only happens in hindsight. The people who really made assloads of money doing quantitative trading are the people who invented the practice. If you're clever enough to invent a whole new discipline, then there will be naysayers who dismiss you as "being born at the right time."

    If human history demonstrates anything, it is that there is always the opportunity for revolutionary technology. Everything has not been invented, and there will be some new thing that enormously disrupts our way of life. To create that new thing, or at least to recognize it when someone cleverer that you creates it, is to be born at the right time.

  • by ErichTheRed (39327) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @06:53AM (#47413823)

    " Dr. Simons is quick to say this his persistence, more than his intelligence, is key to his success"

    That's a very interesting thought. I'm very interested in science, engineering, etc. but seem to lack the innate math ability to do anything beyond a bachelors degree. I probably would have been a lot happier as a researcher, but by the end of doing a BS in chemistry, I was pretty burned out. What's interesting about that statement and made me think is this -- if we were able to pull in more people who aren't "good at school" but still have something useful to contribute, there could be a lot of talent picked up. Success in early education still hinges on the ability to do well on timed tests that check your ability to remember key facts. Therefore, it favors people who can get the material down quickly and have a photographic memory. And it all builds -- early diagnostic tests in elementary school start identifying people's strengths and determining where they should focus, the SATs and other entrance exams determine to some extent what further education you are able to pursue, and exams in undergrad college courses determine whether you stay in the education game or not. For people who don't do well on tests, this can really discourage any further study, even through there's much less emphasis on this kind of learning/testing cycle in graduate studies. It's an interesting thought now that a lot of "knowledge work" is even disappearing and we have to find something for everyone to do. Identifying talent without equating talent to memory ability is a challenge for the current system. I'm not saying everyone can be a Ph.D researcher, I'm just saying that I think we miss a lot of people who could be good at this stuff along the way.

    One of the things that has always struck me about math education is that so little applied math is taught. Now that I don't have the pressure to perform on exams anymore, sometimes I go back and try to figure out some of the math concepts that I never fully understood. Pairing the procedural stuff with a real world example makes it so much easier to understand, and makes it less of a procedure. Simons is a good example of taking something highly theoretical (basic math research) and applying it to something practical (being one of the first hedge funds to do HFT/heavy data analysis.) Unfortunately, it's very difficult to teach applied math to a class of 30 students, some of whom don't care, so a lot of people miss out on this. But it's kind of like have to have a good early education experience to make the jump from chemistry being a jumble of elements, equations, etc. to a set of rules describing how materials interact. People who don't get that exposure in their first chemistry classes aren't likely to continue.

    He's right though -- people who work hard and are persistent do get ahead. Not always, and life isn't fair sometimes, but that tends to be true everywhere. Yes, some people just get lucky, and we only hear about those examples in media. But for normals, how well you do is definitely linked with how much effort you put in.

  • by EuclideanSilence (1968630) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @07:21AM (#47413927)

    I think it depends on why you are persisting. I think the best results in science, music, etc come from those who persist because they love what they are doing, as oppose to those who persist because of a perception of talent or prestige or obligation.

  • Unfortunately, very few people who complete a PhD in this country go on to acheive much financially. Even as the chair of a math department his salary was dwarfed by that paid to the football coach of the same university. It is sad that research pays so poorly in this country in spite of its great benefits.
  • Don't like him (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Charliemopps (1157495) on Wednesday July 09, 2014 @07:30AM (#47413961)

    He worked for the NSA...
    He made his money through High Frequency trading... which is nothing more than steeling...

    I guess he worked for the NSA prior to them going Full Tilt Gestapo on us... but the HF Trading thing I can't let go of. That's basically stealing from the peoples retirement and is flat out evil. Being a "math genius" he would have know what he was doing.

If a 6600 used paper tape instead of core memory, it would use up tape at about 30 miles/second. -- Grishman, Assembly Language Programming