Jim Simons was a mathematician and cryptographer who realized: the complex math he used to break codes could help explain patterns in the world of finance. Billions later, he’s working to support the next generation of math teachers and scholars. TED’s Chris Anderson sits down with Simons to talk about his extraordinary life in numbers.
Jim Simons: A Rare Interview With The Mathematician Who Cracked Wall Street
Chris Anderson: You were something of a mathematical phenom. You had already taught at Harvard and MIT at a young age. And then the NSA came calling. What was that about?
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Jim Simons: Well the NSA — that’s the National Security Agency — they didn’t exactly come calling. They had an operation at Princeton, where they hired mathematicians to attack secret codes and stuff like that. And I knew that existed. And they had a very good policy, because you could do half your time at your own mathematics, and at least half your time working on their stuff. And they paid a lot. So that was an irresistible pull. So, I went there.
Chris Anderson: You were a code-cracker.
Jim Simons: I was.
Chris Anderson: Until you got fired.
Jim Simons: Well, I did get fired. Yes.
Chris Anderson: How come?
Jim Simons: Well, how come? I got fired because, well, the Vietnam War was on, and the boss of bosses in my organization was a big fan of the war and wrote a New York Times article, a magazine section cover story, about how we would win in Vietnam. And I didn’t like that war, I thought it was stupid. And I wrote a letter to the Times, which they published, saying not everyone who works for Maxwell Taylor, if anyone remembers that name, agrees with his views. And I gave my own views …
Chris Anderson: Oh, OK. I can see that would —
Jim Simons: … which were different from General Taylor’s. But in the end, nobody said anything. But then, I was 29 years old at this time, and some kid came around and said he was a stringer from Newsweek magazine and he wanted to interview me and ask what I was doing about my views. And I told him, “I’m doing mostly mathematics now, and when the war is over, then I’ll do mostly their stuff.” Then I did the only intelligent thing I’d done that day — I told my local boss that I gave that interview. And he said, “What’d you say?” And I told him what I said. And then he said, “I’ve got to call Taylor.” He called Taylor; that took 10 minutes. I was fired five minutes after that.
See full transcript here.