The mathematician who cracked Wall Street | Jim Simons | Summary and Q&A

September 25, 2015
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The mathematician who cracked Wall Street | Jim Simons


In this TED Talk, Jim Simons, a mathematician and philanthropist, discusses his career as a code-cracker, his success in the financial industry, and his current work investing in math and science education.

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Questions & Answers

Q: What was Jim Simons' role at the National Security Agency (NSA)?

Jim Simons worked as a mathematician and code-cracker at the NSA. He was hired to help attack secret codes and contributed his mathematical expertise to their operations.

Q: Why did Jim Simons get fired from the NSA?

Jim Simons got fired from the NSA because of his disagreement with the boss of bosses in his organization regarding the Vietnam War. Simons publicly expressed his views, which differed from the pro-war stance of his superior, leading to his termination.

Q: How did Jim Simons' work with mathematician Shiing-Shen Chern apply to physics?

Jim Simons and Shiing-Shen Chern's work in mathematics, specifically the paper they published together, had surprising applications in physics. The concepts they developed, known as Chern-Simons invariants, were later utilized in string theory and condensed matter physics, demonstrating the interconnectedness of mathematics and the physical world.

Q: How did Jim Simons achieve high returns with low volatility in the financial industry?

Jim Simons achieved remarkable returns with low volatility by employing a team of mathematicians and scientists to develop predictive models for trading. They analyzed vast amounts of data and identified anomalies and patterns that allowed them to make successful investment decisions.

Q: What philanthropic projects has Jim Simons been involved in?

Jim Simons and his wife, Marilyn, have established various philanthropic initiatives. One of their projects is Math for America, which supports math teachers by providing additional income, coaching, and recognition. They also fund research into the origins of life, exploring questions about the development of life on Earth and the potential existence of life on other planets.


In this interview, Jim Simons, a mathematician and founder of Renaissance Technologies, discusses his unique career path and his passion for mathematics. He talks about his time working for the NSA as a code-cracker, getting fired due to his opposition to the Vietnam War, and his subsequent work in mathematics with renowned mathematician Shiing-Shen Chern. Simons explains his groundbreaking work in algebraic topology and how it unexpectedly found applications in physics. He then delves into his success in the financial industry, explaining how he used mathematical models and machine learning to achieve astonishing returns with low volatility. Simons also discusses his philanthropic work, particularly through the foundation Math for America, which aims to improve math education in America. He concludes by reflecting on the importance of taking math and science seriously and its potential to bring about positive change.

Questions & Answers

Q: What led Simons to work for the NSA?

Simons joined the NSA because they had a program at Princeton where mathematicians were hired to crack secret codes. The opportunity to work on both his own mathematics and the NSA's projects, as well as the high salary, made it an irresistible opportunity for him.

Q: Why did Simons get fired from the NSA?

Simons got fired because he publicly expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War. He wrote a letter to the New York Times criticizing his superior's views on the war, which led to his dismissal.

Q: How did Simons start working with Shiing-Shen Chern?

Simons had known Chern since his graduate student days at Berkeley. He brought some mathematical ideas to Chern, who liked them, and they began collaborating on a famous paper together.

Q: What was the work that Simons and Chern did together?

Simons and Chern's work was in algebraic topology, specifically related to spheres and their properties. While Simons admits it's difficult to explain the work, he notes that it was highly influential in mathematics and also found unexpected applications in physics, such as string theory and condensed matter physics.

Q: How did Simons achieve remarkable returns with low volatility in the financial industry?

Simons attributes his success to assembling a talented team of mathematicians and scientists. They developed mathematical models and algorithms to analyze vast amounts of data, looking for anomalies and developing predictive schemes. By continuously improving and adapting their models, they were able to achieve high returns with comparatively low risk.

Q: What kind of data did Simons and his team analyze?

Simons and his team analyzed a wide range of data, including weather patterns, quarterly reports, interest rates, historical data, and more. They collected terabytes of data daily and looked for patterns and anomalies that could be exploited in their trading strategies.

Q: Are there concerns about the hedge fund industry attracting too much talent and contributing to inequality?

Simons acknowledges that the hedge fund industry has been criticized for creating wealth and attracting top talent, potentially exacerbating income inequality. However, he believes that the incorporation of science and mathematics into investing has improved the industry by reducing volatility and increasing liquidity.

Q: What philanthropic initiatives has Simons been involved in?

Simons and his wife Marilyn founded the Simons Foundation, which focuses on supporting math and science research. They also started Math for America, a foundation that invests in math teachers and aims to improve math education in the United States.

Q: What is the goal of Math for America?

Math for America aims to celebrate and support excellent math teachers by providing extra income, coaching, and recognition. The foundation believes in celebrating good teachers rather than focusing solely on poor ones. Their goal is to enhance the status and appeal of the teaching profession, particularly in math and science.

Q: What does Simons say about the origins of life and the possibility of extraterrestrial life?

Simons finds the origins of life fascinating and believes there are two key questions: the path from geology to biology and the initial material available for life. He mentions that organic molecules, potential building blocks of life, have been found in the dust surrounding forming stars. While the path to life may be tortuous and rare, there is the possibility of life on other planets.


Jim Simons' life and career demonstrate the power of mathematics and science. From his early days as a code-cracker to his groundbreaking work in mathematics and his success in the financial industry, Simons consistently applied mathematical principles to achieve remarkable results. His philanthropic efforts, particularly in math education and research, reflect his belief in the transformative potential of knowledge. Simons' story serves as an inspiration to take math and science seriously and explore the possibilities they hold.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Jim Simons was a mathematical phenom who taught at Harvard and MIT before joining the National Security Agency (NSA) to work on code-cracking.

  • Simons was fired from the NSA for expressing his opposition to the Vietnam War in a letter to the New York Times.

  • Simons later became a successful hedge fund manager at Renaissance Technologies and focuses on philanthropic efforts, including improving math education and researching the origins of life.

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