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A Thank-You to Jim Simons

May 1, 2012

The Berkeley Theory Institute is announced

Jim Simons is a mathematician who is noted for the Chern-Simons forms from a paper co-authored with Shiing-Shen Chern. These underlie the Chern-Simons theory of topological quantum fields advanced by Edward Witten, which also involves the Jones Polynomial and other knot invariants. In the mid-1960’s he joined the Communications Research Division of the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), specializing in cryptanalysis and other applications of discrete mathematics, and then he was appointed chair of the mathematics department of Stony Brook University. In 1978 he left academia to create a hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, whose success has made him, according to the Financial Times, “the world’s smartest billionaire.”

Today Ken and I wish to thank Simons for his philanthropy in general, and for creating the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at U.C. Berkeley in particular. Thanks to Jim and his wife Marilyn.

I do not have the pleasure of knowing Simons, but we have an intersection through IDA. Years after he left, I arrived at Princeton and was a long time consultant to the Communications Research Division. I cannot say more.

As you all probably already knew—but was just formally announced—the Simons Foundation is creating with Berkeley a new theory center. There already are many centers around the world for various sciences, and the idea of a center for computer science theory was perhaps pioneered by Cornell University a quarter-century ago, but to quote Lance Fortnow already today,

This will be a game-changer for CS theory.

As stated in today’s New York Times article and also noted by Lance, the center will host “about 70 visiting researchers at any one time, including faculty members, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.” This is great.

Thanks and Applause Also to Berkeley

We also want to thank Dick Karp and the rest of the Berkeley team for putting together a terrific proposal. While many worked hard on this proposal, I believe two should be especially thanked: Christos Papadimitriou and Alistair Sinclair, who are part of the initial management team. I have had no direct access to any of the Simons proposals, but am sure they all were strong. I have worked in the past on putting together such large projects—DIMACS is one example—and they take a huge amount time and hard work. Thanks, Dick.

A last comment. The formal press release was written by Sarah Yang. Ken and I differ on a small mattter in her opening paragraph:

Berkeley—A groundbreaking $60 million award to the University of California, Berkeley, from the Simons Foundation will establish the campus as the worldwide center for theoretical computer science. The grant funds the creation of a new institute where top computer theorists and researchers from around the globe will converge to explore the mathematical foundations of computer science and extend them to tackle challenges in fields as diverse as mathematics, health care, climate modeling, astrophysics, genetics, economics and business.

I think the phrase “will establish the campus as the worldwide center for theoretical computer science” probably should be changed a bit, since in my opinion Berkeley already was one of the great centers for theoretical computer science. Ken, however, opines that “establish” can also mean to confirm or render unassailable a position that is already gained. I agree with Ken the more I think about it, so Yang is right. Oh well.

Open Problems

I am honored to be on the outsider advisory board of the Berkeley center, and I think one of the interesting open problems that they will face is: what areas should they focus on in the future? They plan to be quite open, and are at this time planning ways for you to give them input, or even to get more involved in the center directly. Stay tuned.

Finally, again thank you Marilyn and Jim for their support; and thank you to Dick, Christos, Alistair, and their team for the hard work they have already done. The hardest—but most fun—part is next.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. kamouna permalink
    May 2, 2012 7:30 am

    But in theoretical computer science, paradox recognition is an unsolvable problem. So, all our kids can write programs to recognize a paradox, we should suppress them and tell them their programs must go into an infinite loop. Just as the Theory of Computing Journal editors and reviewers told me recently. Check:


    Rafee Kamouna.

  2. Florence Solet permalink
    May 2, 2012 7:36 am

    Will there by any permanent positions at the Simons institute, or will it be entirely postdoc and visiting positions?

  3. John Sidles permalink
    May 2, 2012 12:31 pm

    Here is a meditation on the Berkeley Simons Center that is inspired very largely by questions that Wyatt and Sniffnoy asked here on Gödel’s Lost Letter, to which the suggested answer illustrated what Alexander Grothendieck’s student Pierre Deligne memorably called “The art of finding and creating the home which is a problem’s natural habitat.”

    We all appreciate Jim Simons’ great service in providing to the Berkeley Simons Center the resources necessary to “create the home that will be a natural habitat for \langle\text{some problems}\rangle. The question “What problems should those be?” has many good answers, and of course it is neither necessary, nor feasible, nor even desirable that everyone should embrace the same answer.

    Nonetheless, the Center has to move forward with some guiding research strategy … hopefully a strikingly novel and risk-accepting research strategy … that on the other hand is solidly grounded in STEM history and assured of success. 🙂

    Moreover, on a per-capita basis, the Simons Center’s 70 researchers each represent the interests of one hundred million of Earth’s inhabitants, and so to have a perceptible impact on planetary well-being, the Center’s research strategy should catalyze the achievement of research objectives whose return-on-investment exhibits what we will call “galactic gain” (in Dick and Ken’s happy phrase).

    Turning to STEM history for happy examples of galactic-gain achievements within a mathematically natural habitat, among the best accounts that I can find (within my own BibTeX database anyway) is David Mindell’s “Opening Black’s Box: Rethinking Feedback’s Myth of Origin” (Technology and Culture, 2000), in which:

    The Home: The early Bell Labs.

    A Galactic Objective: “Moore’s Law” improvement of telephony

    The Natural Habitat: Abstracting volts & feedback to information & control.

    Jim Simons has generously created the home … now Berkeley’s Simons Institute faces the tough challenge of specifying that home’s 21st century “galactic objectives” … to be followed by the still-tougher challenge of conceiving the novel abstractions that will constitute a fertile natural habitat for achieving these galactic objectives, not only for the blessed few sheltering within the walls of the Berkeley Simons Institute, but for “the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world.”

    • John Sidles permalink
      May 3, 2012 5:52 am

      As Lance Fortnow says, Berkeley’s Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing is “A game-changer for CS theory.” Of course, other CS game-changers are in-play too, and one such game-changer is being vigorously discussed on SlashDot and other similar forums: the IBM corporation’s radical and on-going cuts in North American employment. 😦

      Although the details have to be guessed (because IBM is secretive in these matters), it appears that employment has been cut from ~200,000+ in 1999 to ~90,000 at present, and that the declines are continuing, or even accelerating. 😯

      It seems (to me) that there is not much utility in arguing the details of these cuts. However a very productive line of inquiry for the Simons Institute might be: “How is it that a vigorous and creative enterprise like IBM could find no profitable employment for 110,000 employees? What new tools can CS research provide to render continued employment economically feasible?”

      Senior CS researchers commonly embrace Wilkins Micawber’s view that “Something will turn up.” And yet for younger researchers especially — and for STEM students in particular — the pigeonhole principle makes the Micawber strategy globally non-viable. That is why, in the not-so-long run, the accelerating decline in STEM-career opportunities is bad news for everyone, young and old, both within CS and without.

      Recently I had occasion to go the stacks of my library and page through the April issues of Scientific American for 1957 and 2011, side-by-side. The multiple full-page ads by IBM in the 1957 edition made a vivid impression, in confidently asserting “Innumerable opportunities exist at IBM” and that “IBM announces ground-floor opportunities for scientists and engineers … send your resume, in confidence, for an immediate interview.” Not only IBM, but dozens of other companies too, were announcing similarly enticing STEM career opportunities on the pages of the 1957 Scientific American.

      As we all appreciate, no similar enterprise vigor is evident today … and we do not know why. How is it that Moore’s Law growth in algorithmic efficiency, and in the number of species in the Complexity Zoo, is not accompanied by Moore’s Law growth in the value of a STEM education? How is it that Moore’s Law growth in the number of transistors, is not accompanied by Moore’s Law growth in family-supporting jobs and STEM careers?

      Surely these trans-disciplinary yet CS-centric questions are among the most interesting and fundamental, that might be addressed by a Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing.

  4. kamouna permalink
    May 3, 2012 6:06 am

    The answer is the Complexity Zoo cannot be any mathematical object, since classes can never be elements. Dear Prof John Sidles, you are interested in social impacts of computing that are far from the TCS researcher’s interests. Perhaps, it does lend itself easy for scientific enquiry.

    Rafee Kamouna.

  5. May 3, 2012 2:14 pm

    Jim Simons has done a lot of good deeds, according to the wikipedia article on him. Including in health care and elementary education.

    It’s interesting that his string theory institute is on the east coast (Stony Brook) and his CS institute will be on the west coast (Berkeley). If he is planning a third science institute, I hope he goes for the geographical center (a quantum computing institute in Texas?)

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