Full text of A Rare Interview With the Mathematician Who Cracked Wall Street: Jim Simons at TED Talks
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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?
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: So 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, Okay 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.
Chris Anderson: Okay.
Jim Simons: But it wasn’t bad.
Chris Anderson: It wasn’t bad, because you went on to Stony Brook and stepped up your mathematical career. You started working with this man here. Who is this?
Jim Simons: Oh, Chern. Shiing-Shen Chern was one of the great mathematicians of the century. I had known him when I was a graduate student at Berkeley. And I had some ideas, and I brought them to him and he liked them. Together, we did this work which you can easily see up there. There it is.
Chris Anderson: It led to you publishing a famous paper together. Can you explain at all what that work was?
Jim Simons: No. I mean, I could explain it to somebody.