Remembering Jim Simons

Appreciation and memories of Jim Simons (1938–2024), from the Simons Institute community. Jim passed away in May. 


       I had a great many opportunities to observe Jim's wisdom and generosity. But the most striking by far was at the birth of the Simons Institute. It was the first time I met him. This was in a meeting designed to set up the MPS (Mathematics and Physical Sciences) part of the Simons Foundation. Jim had asked David Eisenbud to invite experts from Math, Theoretical Physics and Theoretical CS to brainstorm about good avenues for funding. From the TCS side it was Margaret Wright, Dick Karp and me. After a full group meeting, in which Jim outlined his vision, seeking mainly for competent existing funding avenues, we discussed what existed in each discipline, and then broke out to group sessions. The three of us quickly realized that TCS had no research institute, while the other two have several each, so this may qualify (and of course be very useful to have). It fell on me, the Israeli, who may be expected to be somewhat impolite or improper, to ask Jim for such a huge thing. I asked, Jim thought for a few seconds, and then said “This sounds reasonable. Let's see... I think that experimenting with it for 10 years will cost, say, $60M. Sure, let's do it.” And so the amazing Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing came to be. 

       Avi Wigderson
       Institute for Advanced Study
       Simons Institute Scientific Advisory Board member (2012–2015), program organizer, and program participant


       Jim Simons was an unmatched supporter of scientific research. As a former Director of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing I am deeply grateful for his personal encouragement and consistent support of theoretical computer science and its growing impact on many areas of science and society. The institutions that Jim founded will have a permanent impact on the scientific landscape.

       Dick Karp
       UC Berkeley (retired)
       Simons Institute founding director (2012–2017), program organizer, and program participant


       I deeply mourn the passing of Jim Simons, whose vision, generosity, and commitment to mathematics and the sciences have changed the face of theoretical computer science and the Berkeley campus. Jim was a giant in mind, soul, and personality. His legacy will be felt for generations.
       Among his many accomplishments as a philanthropist, Jim, along with his wife, Marilyn, established the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at UC Berkeley, which I’ve had the honor to serve as director these last six years. In founding the Institute, a unique international center of collaborative research in TCS and adjoining fields, Jim and Marilyn’s contributions have made an indelible impact on research in our field, as well as to the career trajectories of generations of young scientists. For me personally, my meetings with Jim and Marilyn over these years were a rare gift allowing me a glimpse at a life well lived. 
       Jim was greater than life, generous beyond measure. He will be deeply missed. 
יהי זכרו ברוך 

       Shafi Goldwasser
       UC Berkeley, MIT, and Weizmann Institute
       Simons Institute director (2018–2024), Resilience Pod director (2024–present), Scientific Advisory Board member (2013–2016), program organizer, and program participant; Simons Investigator (2012)


       My spouse, Mary Catherine, and I first met Jim and Marilyn in the mid-1990s just about the time that they were establishing the Simons Foundation and launching their extraordinary philanthropic giving. I already knew about Jim's groundbreaking contributions to mathematics and mathematical physics because of his famed work with Chern, namely Chern-Simons theory, which was having a major impact on my own area of research. The four of us had a wonderful dinner together at a charming restaurant in Stony Brook. I was there, in good part, in my role as the Dean of Science of MIT, Jim's alma mater. The purpose was for us to connect with Jim and Marilyn and to explore their interest in possibly establishing a chair in the Math department at MIT. It turned out that they were interested and, indeed, I learned from Jim two decades later that this was their first major philanthropic gift. Little did I know then the enormous impact that Jim and Marilyn through their philanthropy would have on theoretical physics and computer science as well as the life sciences in the years to come. 
       My next major interaction with Jim and Marilyn came after I had moved to Berkeley as Chancellor. Early in my service at Berkeley I had breakfast with Jim at a cafe in Boston. We talked about many things including the ways in which Jim, Marilyn and their foundation could impact Berkeley. Jim initially was reserved and, in fact, said that he was not interested in conventional philanthropy but rather wanted to do things that were new and prospectively highly impactful. I also came to understand quickly that I should minimize my own talking and simply listen to Jim discussing what he thought was important. In the end, Jim and his family have had an enormous impact on Berkeley including most especially the creation of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing which has been an enormous success.
       Shortly after I stepped down as Chancellor in 2013, I got a call from Jim saying that he wanted to talk with me about a new initiative that he was very excited about, namely the Science Philanthropy Alliance. Jim was helping to spearhead this new partnership between six major foundations which were committed to advancing basic scientific research. The essential idea was to increase significantly the breadth and depth of the science philanthropic community. Jim was absolutely messianic about this idea. He realized that the involved foundations would need to partner with the lead research universities and he asked me to serve as one of the university liaison leaders to help advance this initiative. This has turned out to be a phenomenal success with now more than 30 foundations actively participating. The impact on basic research in the U.S. has been extraordinary.
       Most recently, Jim and Marilyn have gone in a new and, to me, initially surprising direction. They decided to establish in New York in 2016 a new research center, the Flatiron Institute, which has five groups carrying out computational research in Biology, Astrophysics, Quantum Mechanics, Mathematics and Neuroscience. This institute is already a remarkable success with groundbreaking papers coming out of it almost daily.
       There are many other important programs like the Simons Fellows which I have not discussed in these brief comments. Virtually all of these have had an important impact. Perhaps most impressive is that throughout all of this Jim and Marilyn have retained their decency, modesty and humanity. They are like your favorite neighbors. 
       We have lost one of our community's greatest members through Jim's passing. However, there is no doubt that his work will go on forever through his wife Marilyn and the Simons Foundation, his children and their foundations, and all of the people whose lives he influenced so much. There never was and may never be again another person quite like Jim.

       Bob Birgeneau
       Chancellor, UC Berkeley (2004–2013)


       As founding associate director of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at UC Berkeley, I was immensely privileged to be able to assist Jim Simons in realizing his vision for the world’s first major forum for collaborative research in Theoretical Computer Science, and more broadly the TCS lens on the sciences. As soon as the Institute opened its doors for the first time in the Fall of 2013, it was immediately clear that it was destined to be a game-changer for the entire field: the eyes of the first batch of visitors — dozens of postdocs, junior faculty and senior leaders — spontaneously lit up as they walked through the doors: this was an oasis where their ideas could flourish in their own right, rather than as an appendage to other disciplines. Since those early days the Institute has gone from strength to strength, and by now has touched the lives of almost the entire TCS community, as well as many scientists in neighboring fields. Scores of fundamental advances, as well as key developments in the careers of numerous outstanding young scientists, can be traced back to the Institute’s programs. Jim Simons was the perfect philanthropist: he had the vision, provided the inspiration and the resources, and trusted the domain scientists to implement the details, with an occasional gently guiding hand. As in so many other disciplines, his legacy in the Theory of Computing will be deeply felt for generations to come.

       Alistair Sinclair
       UC Berkeley
       Simons Institute founding associate director (2012–2017), Scientific Advisory Board member (2018–2020), program organizer, and program participant


       With the foresight to fund the Simons Institute, Jim Simons has created a thriving legacy that is literally a one-of-a-kind institution. As a program organizer or participant in Simons Institute programs, I have gotten to learn about and appreciate new connections and complementary viewpoints, and view even familiar topics in a new light. In my senior scientist role, the institute now constantly inspires me to expand my horizons, and provides me with an influential platform for professional service to my beloved TCS community as well as the joys of meeting a steady stream of friends and colleagues who pass through the institute. The generous support of the Simons Investigator program has given me the freedom to take risks and explore new directions, alongside many talented students and postdocs. Thank you, Jim — your generosity has positively influenced my day-to-day work in so many ways, and I am extremely grateful for it. RIP, Jim!

       Venkatesan Guruswami
       UC Berkeley
       Simons Institute senior scientist (2022–present), acting interim director (2023), Scientific Advisory Board member (2020–2021), program organizer, and program participant; Simons Investigator (2020)


       The Simons Institute, and Jim's support for mathematics more generally, have supported my career at every stage.
       As a postdoc in the quantitative geometry program at MSRI in Fall 2011 and a fellow in the Big Data program at the Institute in Fall 2013, I met many of the people whose papers I had read in graduate school. That made the math seem less intimidating. I was able to learn what they thought was at the heart of things, which shaped my taste in research.
       As a new assistant professor at Berkeley, I built my research program during countless visits to the Institute and its programs – notably the ones on spectral graph theory, pseudorandomness and optimization. Many of my graduate students found thesis topics there. On the more mathematical side, I attended several workshops on Expanders, Geometry, and other subjects at the Simons Foundation in New York, which led to a series of papers about mathematical physics on graphs.
       Some of the biggest impacts came from programs which I wasn’t even part of. For instance, my work on eigenvalue computation can be traced back to chance conversations between Jim Demmel and Peter Buergisser in the Algebraic Geometry program in 2014, and a talk I saw by Mark Embree in the Foundations of Data Science program in 2018. I would likely not have heard of this research direction in the pre-Simons social network of theoretical computer science and its neighboring fields. I like to think that the Institute made that network an expander.
       As a co-organizer of the Geometry of Polynomials program in 2019, I saw how an unnamed cloud of researchers could gather at the Institute to form a coherent, new subfield with its own agenda and guiding problems. I am now co-organizing the Complexity and Linear Algebra program for 2025 and hope to see this happen again.
       Jim’s gift to me and to our community is thus pervasive and global. Thank you for that. 

       Nikhil Srivastava
       UC Berkeley
       Simons Institute senior scientist (2023–present), Scientific Advisory Board member (2021–2023), program organizer, program participant, and research fellow


       I met Jim in Berkeley around 1976. I remember we talked about math and also about computers, which were an interest of his even back then. We saw each other a few times and I came to know his family during that period. I reconnected with Jim again around 1998 or 2000 during a meeting of the MIT Math Dept visiting committee of which he was a member. When I became head of the department in 2004, I launched the Campaign for Math for endowed chairs and fellowships. Jim, having a special fondness for our department and his alma mater, supported our effort through a generous gift and also by hosting a dinner together with Marilyn for us in their NYC home, inviting others from the financial world. Later on, Jim and Marilyn gave MIT the funds that enabled the transformative renovation of our building at MIT, now called the Simons Building. The department also has a Simons Professorship and the Simons lecture series. We are all immensely grateful to Jim and Marilyn.
       During my six years as MIT dean of science, I saw Jim more regularly, both as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the Simons Foundation and on MIT-related matters. To me, Jim seemed unaffected by his enormous wealth. Ever curious, he delighted in learning about the science he was supporting and asking innocent yet penetrating questions. He was down to earth, charming, and loved a good laugh. 
       The last time I saw Jim was about a year ago at an MIT celebration of the Simons Center for the Social Brain. His health was declining but he brightened up when he saw me and we talked for a while. I'm glad I had that chance.

       Michael Sipser


       Jim Simons' philanthropy has transformed lives, careers, and even entire scientific fields. The example nearest and dearest to my heart is of course the Simons Institute, which has added an entirely new dimension to the field of theoretical computer science. The Institute has supercharged both the mathematical depth and the external impact of the field, and at this point, none of us who work in the area can remember how we managed without it!

       Tim Roughgarden
       Simons Institute Scientific Advisory Board member (2012–2015), program organizer, and program participant


       Over the decades, numerous philanthropies and foundations have made large gifts to academia, leading to substantial impact. Yet, one gift has made a totally disproportionate impact: Jim Simons’ unique and imaginative gift to the theoretical computer science community, in the form of the Simons Institute. 
       This was the gift of not only a well-meaning philanthropist, but also a top-notch researcher who had also served as the chair of a leading department. Jim understood the requirements of frontier research and top researchers, namely interaction with like-minded people from across the globe, under the same roof, for a prolonged period. The results speak for themselves! 
       My most intimate involvement with the Simons Institute came in Fall 2019. About four years before that I realized that the prominent economics area of Matching-Based Market Design and the highly innovative Internet-enabled marketplaces had led to a potent combination which was worth exploring in depth. When isolated sessions in workshops were unsuccessful in spreading this message, I decided to pitch a semester-long program to the Simons Institute, together with an interdisciplinary team of co-organizers. 
       With the Fall 2019 program, Jim’s Institute led to the creation of the new area of Online and Matching-Based Market Design! Furthermore, the stimulating environment of the Institute led to discussions on the writing of a co-edited book on this topic. The book was published in 2023 and is expected to foster teaching and research in this new area for decades to come. 
       Thank you Jim, you are our hero! 

       Vijay Vazirani
       UC Irvine
       Simons Institute program organizer


       I have visited Flatiron Institute many times, and I have witnessed firsthand the high-quality research being conducted in mathematics and physics. For example, the institute stands out as one of the strongest places in quantum sciences. Jim Simons' support has not only advanced my research—through several grants from the Simons Foundation, including the Simons Investigator in Mathematics award, which has been instrumental in supporting promising young scholars—but has also fostered a thriving community of innovation and excellence.

       Lin Lin
       UC Berkeley
       Simons Institute program participant; Simons Investigator (2021)


       My career has benefited greatly by Jim Simons' generosity. 
       I was extremely fortunate to be awarded a Simons Investigator Award this year. This award is indispensable in funding my research program which, due to its very theoretical nature, can only be funded by sources that recognize the need for long-term research. The Simons Investigator Award is one of a very small number of such sources, and it is very generous. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity given to me by the Simons Foundation.
       In addition to the award, I have had the amazing opportunity to participate in four Simons Institute semester-long programs: "Algorithms and Complexity in Algebraic Geometry" (2014), "Fine-Grained Complexity and Algorithm Design" (2015, as a co-organizer), "Logic and Algorithms in Database Theory and AI" (2023, as a co-organizer), and "Data Structures and Optimization for Fast Algorithms" (2023). All of these programs have been very influential to my research. Interacting with top algebraic geometers in 2014 taught me a lot and led me to new insights in my matrix multiplication research. Our 2015 program firmly established fine-grained complexity as a field. It has been growing ever since. The Simons Institute is one of the most important venues for fundamental research in theoretical computer science and our community is deeply indebted to the late Jim Simons and the Simons Foundation for its creation and support. 

       Virginia Vassilevska Williams
       Simons Institute Scientific Advisory Board member (2021–2024), program organizer, and program participant; Simons Investigator (2023)


       I know from colleagues that had the chance to talk with Jim how much I personally missed by not having such an opportunity. But I am part of a scientific community that was deeply impacted by his vision of basic science and by his immense generosity. It is hard to overemphasize the impact of The Simons Institute in Berkeley on the foundation of computer science, and the Simons Collaboration on Algorithmic Fairness that I am part of is having a transformative impact on the foundation of responsible computing. Having spent time in yearly meetings in the Simons Foundation, I realize that all I am exposed to is a tiny fraction of Jim’s scientific and philanthropic impact, but in my world, this tiny fraction is all encompassing. I am deeply grateful.

       Omer Reingold
       Simons Institute Scientific Advisory Board member (2019–2022) and program participant; Simons Investigator (2020)


       I am personally grateful to Jim for my Simons Professorship at MIT, an early seed grant for studying autism, and making available the SFARI Gene (autism) database for research.

       Bonnie Berger
       Simons Institute Scientific Advisory Board member (2024–2026)


       I have attended many programs at the Simons Institute throughout its existence and am always thrilled to come here and interact with colleagues from all over the world in an atmosphere very conducive to research. My sincere appreciation of Prof. Simons for setting up this great institute. 

       Ravindran Kannan
       UC Berkeley
       Simons Institute distinguished visiting scientist (2024–present), program organizer, and program participant


       I had the pleasure to interact with Jim on two initiatives: the one leading up to the establishment of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing, and as a member of the SAB for the Flatiron Institute. In both cases, Jim single-handedly put focus and energy at the interface of theory and practice, by ensuring that theory is not set aside when we think about applications. I am very grateful for that legacy and for the remarkable impact it has on science.

       Aviv Regev
       Simons Institute Scientific Advisory Board member (2013–2016)


       This is a sincere acknowledgement of my indebtedness, in many ways, to Jim. 

       Subhash Khot
       Simons Institute program organizer; Simons Investigator (2015)


       The immense impact of Jim Simons on Mathematics and theoretical Computer Science started with his deep contributions in geometry, continued with the foundation of his highly successful quantitative hedge fund based on mathematical models, and culminated with his philanthropic activity, and the creation of the Simons Foundation that played a leading role in the establishment of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing, the Flatiron Institute, the Simons Laufer Mathematical Sciences Institute, and more.
       I visited the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing several times, organized a workshop there, and participated as one of the principal investigators in the Simons Collaboration on Algorithms and Geometry. I had the opportunity to meet Jim Simons himself several times — the brief discussions with him, and his sense of humor, have always been inspiring.
       His personality, generosity and contributions to Research in Mathematics and theoretical Computer Science over the years have been unique. His legacy, memory and impact will live on in these communities.

       Noga Alon
       Simons Institute Scientific Advisory Board member (2013–2016) and program participant


       Jim Simons's vision and philanthropy have had a transformative impact on my own field of theoretical computer science. If I were writing a history of theoretical computer science in the 21st century, I would divide it into the "pre-Simons" and "post-Simons" eras, with the latter being a golden age of interaction and collaboration — this is certainly my own experience, and I know it's true for many, many others as well. I have seen countless students and postdocs from Columbia (my home institution) and elsewhere have their research programs and professional careers get a tremendous boost from time spent at the Simons Institute at UC Berkeley. This is a huge and lasting legacy, but of course it's only a tiny part of the impact that Jim's generosity has had across many fields.

       Rocco Servedio
       Simons Institute Scientific Advisory Board member (2023–2025) and program participant


       Jim was a good father, a good friend, a good man, and I shall miss him.

       Barbara Simons
       IBM Research (retired)


       I visited Flatiron Institute many times and sometimes saw Jim in the breakfast room. On one occasion, I asked to meet with him and was nicely surprised that he said yes. I don't remember what we discussed, but what I remember is the vivid image of a most intelligent, down-to-earth, kind, and humble human being. He will be greatly missed.

       Bin Yu 
       UC Berkeley
       Simons Institute senior advisor (2023–present), program organizer, and program participant


       The Simons Investigator program was an embodiment of Jim Simons' generosity and vision, and it continues to be my honor to be supported by it. Moreover, Jim Simons' establishment of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing has played an outsized role in my own mathematical research into the foundations of cryptography, most notably on the foundations of program obfuscation. Thank you Jim Simons for your vision and generosity. May you rest in peace.

       Amit Sahai
       Simons Institute program participant; Simons Investigator (2021)


       For the Simons Institute's 10th Anniversary Symposium in 2022, I was among the first to arrive at the reception, just a few minutes ahead of Dr. Jim Simons. Seizing the opportunity, I approached him for a picture together. During our conversation, he asked about my research, and I mentioned my work in recreational mathematics, network and Big Data analysis, quantum logic synthesis, and my multi-year struggle with understanding children's bilingual learning. Dr. Simons then inquired about the motivation behind these seemingly diverse projects. I proudly told him, "I am a Simons Investigator," and explained that his generous support for conducting curiosity-driven fundamental research inspired me to explore areas beyond my traditional comfort zone.
       Prior to this event, I had met him several times at the Simons Foundation Mathematics and Physical Sciences (MPS) Annual Meetings, which he often attended. Each year for me, attending these meetings felt like being a lucky student going back to school, enriched by wonderful talks on quantum physics, biological sciences, and their mathematical foundations. Simons' passion and love for basic research have been inspirational, and his generosity has been instrumental for many young scientists. This great man will be missed, but his legacy will continue to inspire generations to come.

       Shang-Hua Teng
       Simons Institute program participant; Simons Investigator (2014)


       Jim Simons was an extraordinary person. His philanthropic efforts have had an enormous impact on the theory of CS community, and on me personally. Many of us could not do our research without his support. I will always remember how he joined us for the technical presentations at Simons Foundation meetings, and when the audience asked a question, he would answer it more clearly than the speaker. Jim will be greatly missed. 

       Dan Boneh
       Simons Institute program organizer and program participant; Simons Investigator (2015)


       Jim Simons' generosity and involvement with the TCS community significantly helped advance my research, and many others’. In my many visits to the Simons institute at Berkeley, I got to learn about recent advances and collaborate with colleagues. This center would not have been possible without Jim's support. More recently, I was awarded the Simons Investigator award which helps me focus on high-risk high-gain projects. Beyond my own research, Jim Simons helped TCS advance in many ways, through the Simons Institute, Simons postdoc program, and various workshops and other programs that were supported by the Simons Foundation.

       Shachar Lovett
       UC San Diego
       Simons Institute program organizer and program participant; Simons Investigator (2022)


       Unfortunately, I never had the privilege of meeting Jim Simons. Despite this, his generous support of Theoretical Computer Science, particularly through the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at UC Berkeley, continues to have an enormous impact on the discipline. Both my visits and the many visits of my students to the center have been invaluable. The center has served as a vital nexus for sub-communities to share recent advances and chart research visions going forward. It has also provided a singularly fantastic venue for students and postdocs to connect with the broader research community. We owe much to Jim for his generosity and unwavering commitment to advancing TCS.

       Greg Valiant
       Simons Institute program participant; Simons Investigator (2022)


       The Simons Institute has been a tremendous gift to the Theoretical Computer Science (TCS) community. The Institute's contribution to encouraging groundbreaking research in theoretical computer science and highlighting its connections to other scientific fields is unparalleled. We have felt the impact of each scientific program long after the programs finish — the research agenda is stimulated, young researchers are inspired and a cohesive community is developed. Precious resources such as the video library have been crucial for our young students who are trying to enter new areas. Jim's gift has given much needed support and attention to a vibrant and creative research community that is often overlooked by funding sources that focus on shorter term research.

       Ronitt Rubinfeld
       Simons Institute Scientific Advisory Board member (2020–2023), program organizer, and program participant