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The Man Who Solved the Market

How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution

By Gregory Zuckerman
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The Man Who Solved the Market by Gregory Zuckerman

The Man Who Solved the Market (2019) traces the life of enigmatic hedge fund manager and mathematician Jim Simons. It chronicles his early life as a brilliant geometer who won awards for his math, to his work breaking Soviet codes, all the way through to his success with his hedge fund management firm Renaissance Technologies. Far more than just another investor, Simons changed the world with his math and methods.

Key idea 1 of 9

Jim Simons was obsessed with math from a very early age.

Jim Simons loved numbers from the moment he understood what they were.

Born in 1938 to a middle-class American Jewish family in Brookline, Massachusetts, Jim was the only child of Matthew and Marcia Simons.

Like many people with an unusual talent for numbers, he began to show an interest in them very early. He learned to solve complex problems at the age of three. One day, his parents found him dividing numbers by two, all the way from 1024 downwards. For a toddler, this was an astonishing feat.

Another time, when out on a family drive, four-year-old Jim was baffled when his father had to stop to fill the car up with gas. Jim couldn’t work out why this was necessary, as he figured that the tank wouldn’t ever run out. He reasoned that if they used up half of what was in the tank, there would be another half remaining; then they could use half of that remaining half, leaving another, smaller half to be used, and so on.

Without knowing it, the four-year-old had started on a classic mathematical problem – one of the problems the Greek philosopher Zeno had addressed in his group of paradoxes. If you always have to travel half the remaining distance before reaching your destination, no matter how small, how can you ever reach your destination? 

After school, he was encouraged to go into medicine by the family doctor, who thought it was a good job for “a bright Jewish boy.” Of course, Jim had other ideas.

He enrolled at MIT and studied for a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. After struggling initially and failing a few tests, he took time out one summer to really nail the more complex theorems. After that period, he began to blossom. He loved how complex formulae seemed to join up with other formulae across mathematics, seeming to hint at a universal system. He wondered if he was looking at a kind of code that could explain the world’s mystery. He was often seen around campus lying on his back, eyes closed, contemplating an equation.

One time he saw two of his professors, renowned mathematicians, Warren Ambrose and Isadore Singer, deep in discussion at midnight in a local café. At that moment, he decided that this was the kind of life he wanted: cigarettes, coffee, and mathematics at all hours.

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