Seeker, Doer, Giver, Ponderer: A Billionaire Mathematician’s Life of Ferocious Curiosity

William J. Broad in The New York Times:

MathJames H. Simons likes to play against type. He is a billionaire star of mathematics and private investment who often wins praise for his financial gifts to scientific research and programs to get children hooked on math. But in his Manhattan office, high atop a Fifth Avenue building in the Flatiron district, he’s quick to tell of his career failings. He was forgetful. He was demoted. He found out the hard way that he was terrible at programming computers. “I’d keep forgetting the notation,” Dr. Simons said. “I couldn’t write programs to save my life.” After that, he was fired. His message is clearly aimed at young people: If I can do it, so can you. Down one floor from his office complex is Math for America, a foundation he set up to promote math teaching in public schools. Nearby, on Madison Square Park, is the National Museum of Mathematics, or MoMath, an educational center he helped finance. It opened in 2012 and has had a quarter million visitors. Dr. Simons, 76, laughs a lot. He talks of “the fun” of his many careers, as well as his failings and setbacks. In a recent interview, he recounted a life full of remarkable twists, including the deaths of two adult children, all of which seem to have left him eager to explore what he calls the mysteries of the universe.

…Dr. Simons received his doctorate at 23; advanced code breaking for the National Security Agency at 26; led a university math department at 30; won geometry’s top prize at 37; founded Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s most successful hedge funds, at 44; and began setting up charitable foundations at 56. This year, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an elite body that Congress founded during Lincoln’s presidency to advise the federal government. With a fortune estimated at $12.5 billion, Dr. Simons now runs a tidy universe of science endeavors, financing not only math teachers but hundreds of the world’s best investigators, even as Washington has reduced its support for scientific research. His favorite topics include gene puzzles, the origins of life, the roots of autism, math and computer frontiers, basic physics and the structure of the early cosmos.

More here.