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Jim Simons: A Life of Scholarship, Leadership and Philanthropy

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Jim simons remembering

Beloved friend, generous philanthropist, pioneering mathematician, and visionary leader James H. Simons died on May 10 at the age of 86. 

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Jim was the chairman of Stony Brook’s math department from 1968-1978.

For six decades, Jim Simons was Stony Brook University’s most vocal champion. His teaching, research, academic and volunteer leadership, and philanthropy have forever transformed the university and his generosity of spirit was matched only by his probing intelligence and profound optimism for the future. Whether as chair of the Department of Mathematics or his leadership on the Stony Brook Foundation Board of Trustees, Jim always saw Stony Brook’s potential. He looked beyond what was and saw what could be — and he helped bring that future to life.  

“Jim was a remarkable friend and advocate, both to Stony Brook and to me personally. I am honored to have known him,” said Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis. “Stony Brook is incredibly fortunate to have been a part of his life and to have shared in his generosity, brilliance, humor, and unending curiosity about the world around him. The University is infinitely better because of Jim, from the students he taught to the research he led, the faculty he supported, and the programs he helped build.”

An Enduring Impact

When Stony Brook President John Toll hired Jim to lead the Department of Mathematics in 1968, he could not have foreseen the magnitude of his decision. As the youngest chair in the history of the university, Jim joked that he was given the opportunity because he was the only person who would accept the challenge. Jim’s stereotypical humor aside, he brought his curiosity and intellect to bear on the role and built one of the nation’s top math departments during his 10-year tenure as chair.

 Jim unassumingly credited his success to the team he recruited: “I was able to hire some great people…and we really built up an outstanding department. And that was fun.” 

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Jim with C.N. Yang.

One of his most prized relationships was with his colleague in the Department of Physics, Nobel Prize winner C.N. Yang and founding director of the eponymous Institute for Theoretical Physics on Stony Brook’s campus. Their many conversations inspired Jim’s deep interest in the intersection of geometry and physics, ultimately leading to the establishment of the renowned Simons Center for Geometry and Physics (SCGP). 

“From Archimedes to Newton to Einstein, much of the most profound work in physics has been deeply intertwined with the geometric side of mathematics,” said Jim upon the 2008 announcement of the gift that would fund the SCGP. “Since then, in particular with the advent of such areas as quantum field theory and string theory, developments in geometry and physics have become if anything more interrelated. The new Center will give many of the world’s best mathematicians and physicists the opportunity to work and interact in an environment and an architecture carefully designed to enhance progress. We believe there is a chance that work accomplished at the Center will significantly change and deepen our understanding of the physical universe and of its basic mathematical structure.”

Since then, the SCGP has evolved into an internationally renowned think tank whose permanent members have been elected as Fellows of the Royal Society, the American Mathematical Society, the Japanese National Academy of Sciences, as well as received the Fields Medal, Shaw Prize, Packard Fellowship, Clay Research Award and  Dannie Heineman Prize as well as many other awards. 

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Jim with Richard Gelfond.

Beyond his academic leadership, Jim helped inspire the next generation of volunteer leaders through his participation in and stewardship of the Stony Brook Foundation Board of Trustees. 

“One of the great privileges of my life has been to know and work with Jim Simons for the past three decades,” said Richard Gelfond ’76, Stony Brook Foundation Board of Trustees Chair. “His service on the Board strengthened all of us. He had a way of immediately getting to the fundamental issues and asking the right questions. His unique wit, incredible intellect and philanthropy, particularly toward Stony Brook, will always be remembered. I will miss him mightily.”

Philanthropy on an Astonishing Scale

Jim’s influence at Stony Brook extends far beyond his intellectual contributions. He met his wife Marilyn through Stony Brook, and together they created an extraordinary legacy of impactful philanthropy for the university that has surpassed $1 billion. As if their own remarkable contributions weren’t enough, the Simons directly inspired more than 2,100 people to contribute an additional $230 million in philanthropy for scholarships, faculty support, and the university’s endowment.

Through Jim and Marilyn’s foresight, strategic counsel, and investment, they have been instrumental in making Stony Brook a highly ranked national research university and an unmatched agent of progress and social mobility.

Examples of some of Jim and Marilyn’s substantial investments include:

The Simons Center for Geometry and Physics (SCGP), which opened at Stony Brook University in 2010 thanks to Jim and Marilyn’s philanthropic support and Jim’s belief that progress in mathematics and theoretical physics can be made when researchers come together in an environment that encourages the sharing of ideas, bridging divides and increasing innovation. 

In addition to the center, the Simons established the Simons Math and Physics Operating Funds to ensure that Stony Brook’s Mathematics and Physics departments consistently rank among the top in the nation.

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Jim and Marilyn Simons at the Renaissance School of Medicine.

The Simons also played a significant role in elevating what is now the renowned Renaissance School of Medicine. Through a matching challenge gift announced in 2011, Jim and Marilyn transformed research across several areas of the medical and life sciences. Ultimately, their matching gift and the philanthropy it inspired provided critical funding for research excellence in the School of Medicine as well as other parts of the university, faculty hires through new endowed professorships, and recruitment of top-level graduate and undergraduate students. As a result of this historic investment, Stony Brook was able to build the Center for Medical and Research Translation (MART). 

Announced in late 2020, the Presidential Innovation and Excellence Fund has enabled Stony Brook to attract preeminent scholars, pursue cutting-edge research, and win leadership of the Center for Climate Solutions on Governors Island through the New York Climate Exchange.The Simons Foundation provided seed money for the fund, with a matching challenge that attracted additional philanthropy from other generous donors. This fund makes it possible for Stony Brook to invest in current strengths and pursue big and bold opportunities that address the world’s most critical challenges of the future.

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The Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars Program.

The Stony Brook Simons STEM Scholars Program welcomed its inaugural cohort in 2023. Spearheaded by David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation, and championed by Jim and Marilyn, the program provides comprehensive financial support for some of the nation’s most talented students to pursue undergraduate STEM degrees at Stony Brook. By providing opportunities for historically underrepresented students to join the frontlines of global STEM challenges, this life-changing experience enables these exceptional scholars to become the change needed in the world today.

Jim and Marilyn’s $500 million Simons Infinity Investment is the largest unrestricted endowment gift in American higher education, and its impact on Stony Brook is expected to reach $1 billion through matching contributions from New York State and other philanthropic leaders. Investments stemming from this gift will have a direct impact on the university’s ability to pursue new opportunities and provide student scholarships, endowed professorships, innovative research, and excellent clinical care for generations into the future. 

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The Richard E. Leakey Memorial Conference.

The Simons Foundation supported Stony Brook’s partnership with Richard Leakey, helping to establish the Turkana Basin Institute in 2012. The institute, which was originally built to support the study of prehistory and human origins, now attracts researchers from around the world from multiple disciplines who are interested in studying the Turkana Basin’s unique landscape and applying their findings to address some of the world’s biggest challenges. 

In support of the Stony Brook-led New York Climate Exchange, the Simons Foundation and Simons Foundation International pledged $100 million as a matching gift and have inspired other leading philanthropists and climate solutions advocates to lend additional support. As a coalition of the world’s leading universities, corporations, and community organizations, the Exchange will be an international hub of research, innovation, education, and collaboration to address the global climate crisis.

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Simons Summer Research Program.

Founded in 1984, the Simons Summer Research Program has helped more than a thousand high school students conduct innovative research alongside esteemed faculty mentors.  

Through these initiatives and programs, Jim’s influence and impact spanned the tenure of former Stony Brook leaders John Toll, Jack Marburger, Shirley Strum Kenny, and Sam Stanley — and that impact lives on through the students, faculty, and research he enabled and through the relationships he made.

“Jim was among the finest people I’ve ever known,” said Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., MD. “His magnificent mind was enhanced by his vision and optimism. The result was an incomparable leader and philanthropist who has helped provide Stony Brook with infinite possibilities and the capacity to reach unparalleled heights in the areas of research, education and discovery. ”

“Jim was not only mathematically brilliant but also a visionary advisor about what Stony Brook could — and did — become,” Shirley Strum Kenny said. “Stony Brook would not be Stony Brook without Jim’s vision and commitment.”

The satisfaction of seeing Stony Brook thrive fueled their generosity, as Jim reflected: “Stony Brook gave me a chance to lead —and so it has been deeply rewarding to watch the University grow and flourish even more.”

“Jim Simons leaves a tremendous and incomparable legacy at Stony Brook University,” reflected President McInnis. “His inquisitiveness, vision, caring, and extraordinary philanthropy have made an indelible and irreplaceable impact on every corner of the University. Through his generosity, his intellect, and his leadership he will continue to enrich lives and advance science and knowledge at Stony Brook for generations to come.”

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9 comments

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  • Jim Simons contributions to Stony Brook University will always be remembered. Even beyond the walls of Stony Brook University.

  • Stony Brook University has often been lucky, but never so much as when Jim Simons came our way. He was a great mathematician and inspired us all. But he also built a world-class mathematics department, was a good university colleague, and later became interested in the mathematics of investment and characteristically was a unique achiever in financial investment research and the construction of a great company. And if that wasn’t enough, he gave sage advice to generations of Stony Brook leaders and left a legacy of astute donations in so many dimensions of Stony Brook’s university endeavors that we can only begin to understand the benefits of his legacy. On top of all this he turned his own tragedies into productive things like bike trails and secured land in Stony Brook to leave a legacy of community enjoyment and environmental protection. I hope that a major part of campus will be named after him.

  • Rest in peace, your contributions to SB and the world are immense and great investments towards the future!

  • The story isn’t complete without discussing how Renaissance Technologies grew into the first successful big hedge fund. Jim was the brains behind the statistical arbitrage algorithms that were employed to quantize risk and reward. Being close to Wall St. certainly helped get the ball rolling — investors were very interested in how algorithmic math could be harnessed to make more “objective” trading platforms, and Jim was just the right person to make this start-up work. Begun in 1982, Renaissance (Setauket) was always staffed by the brightest whiz kids — Jim was a brains-magnet. Their Medallion Fund started 6 years later holds the record of being the most profitable investment fund ever over its 36 year span.

    It was because of Jim’s risk-taking and vision starting Renaissance that he and Marilyn could become such generous benefactors to Stony Brook.

    I wish I had known Jim….I’m sure I could have convinced him to invest in my math education startup (DataflowGeometry.org), a 21st century reboot of high school geometry steeped in Computational Thinking.

    When I think of Jim, I think of that 1960s song by Jay and the Americans “Only in America…..land of opportunity….yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” That “can do” DNA is America’s most prized cultural asset….it’s now up to us to follow Jim’s example and keep that mentality strong and kicking.

    Pierre Bierre
    SBU ‘1972 Theoretical Physics

  • I meet Jim and his beautiful wife Marilyn two times at a party given by their foundation! I was in awe of his kindness and generosity, but most of all his witty stories of life! I am a proud graduate from Stony Brook University and my husband is a Park Ranger at Avalon Park (another magnificent landmark for Long Island)He will always be remembered, his legacy will forever remain!

  • You and your wife took Stony Brook to world class status recognition through your generous philanthropy. That will have ripple effects in communities that need your vision and charity. You will be missed. Many more will take these opportunities to further impact society for good.

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