An interview with Dr. James Simons on “Math, Money, and Making a Difference,” from the S. Donald Sussman Fellowship Award Fireside Chat Series. Dr. Simons talks about how he got interested in mathematics.
Dr. James Simons: How I Got Interested In Mathematics
Why don't we begin at the beginning. How did you get interested in mathematics as a child?
I wasn't. I was always interested in mathematics even when I was a little kid. There were two things that stand out in my mind when I was very little. I wanted to know all the powers of 2. So I just kept it true for a 16 those are some of the powers. I got up to a thousand twenty four.
But I was only you know two or three years old so that was pretty high up and I figured far enough.
But I had an experience when I was not much older maybe three three and a half or so now in the car with my father and he said we have to stop for gas. I said what he means when we have to put in some more gas. Otherwise we'll run out. Well it was concerning to me running out of gas. I didn't know quite what it meant except we didn't have any water. And I said you don't have to run out of gas. All you have to do is use half of what you probably have. Then use half of that and keep going. Now that was a pretty profound thing and of course I didn't realize. Yeah but you really wouldn't get anywhere either. But it was it was you know it was a kind of sophisticated thought for 4 year old or a 3 year old. But I always liked math and that was pretty much. Excited for reading. I loved reading but math was the subject I really cared about school. Did you enjoy math in high school.
Yeah. Yeah I like math in high school I was like I love playing geometry. That was there proofs. Proofs mostly I'm sure toplane geometry. I hope to play geometry. The idea of Durhams and proofs really appealed to me and I liked that very much. I liked that I liked it better than calculus which we learned I was fine calculus but that plane geometry. The idea of arms and drugs really appealed to me very much.
So you were an MIT undergraduate. Can you tell us a little bit about your some of your experiences here. What was it like back then. Well I was an MIT undergraduate I grew up in Brookline and Newton not very far away from MIT and I came here already knowing a fair amount of math so I was taking sophomore courses and my freshman year.
In the second semester. I saw there was a graduate course in algebra abstract algebra. It was a first year graduate course. But the important thing is I had no prerequisites. OK. No prerequisite. So I took this course and found it. Extremely puzzling. I mean I managed to get through it and I were the arms of. But I just couldn't grasp the essence of the subject and that summer I got a book on the subject and within a week it was perfectly clear all the things that were puzzling me why would one do this.
In particular it's the fundamental theorem of Homer morph isms which I don't think will mean much to most of you and may be to some of you but it's a basic theorem and all kinds of algebra. You make a map. From one place to another and then there's some things that go into o0 that say you can divide out by those things and get a structure on the left hand side equal to the image on the right hand side. So but then after that I took all the graduate algebra classes and they were a breeze. So but I wasn't I was only 17 when I was taking the first graduate course so it's not surprising. I was a little puzzled but nonetheless. So I was fine at MIT. I graduated in three years. So that was that was good. But but the subject that really turned me onto.