Oh Captain, My Captain!

Professor Brian Keating
6 min readMay 13, 2024
Jim Simons

Dear Friends,

It is with a profound sense of loss and reverence that I write to you today, not just as a friend of Jim Simons but as someone forever touched by the magnitude of his vision and the depth of his principles. Jim passed away Friday at the age of 86, leaving behind a legacy that transcends his time here with us.

From his early days breaking codes to his extraordinary tenure in finance, Jim embodied a set of principles that were as simple as they were revolutionary. These were not just words to him; they were the very pillars upon which he built a life of immense achievement and influence. I was honored to spend weeks with Jim Simons and share conversation and intimate conversations with him. I am also blessed to have done a 90-minute podcast with Jim on Father’s Day 2020, linked above.

Throughout the years, in private and public conversations with Jim I learned so much — it’s impossible to distill it all, from his views on the purpose of wealth, to his style of leadership, to his thoughts on being a father. Below, I tried my best, amidst tears of sorrow, to condense into a few words what this magnificent man meant to me and millions more.

Be Guided by Beauty

For Jim, beauty was found in the elegance of a well-proven theorem, the seamless operation of a math department, or the intricate dance of numbers that led to unparalleled financial strategies. This search for beauty guided him throughout his career, impelling him to look beyond the obvious and appreciate the profound.

Surround Yourself with Brilliance

He believed in the power of intelligence and creativity, surrounding himself with some of the brightest minds from fields as diverse as physics and finance. This was not about oversight but about fostering an environment where extraordinary talent could thrive without constraints.

Forge Your Own Path

In a world where following the crowd is often the easiest path, Jim was adamant about doing something original. This principle was vividly illustrated when he shifted from academia to finance, not to tread well-worn paths but to blaze new trails by starting the math department at a then-unknown university (SUNY Stony Brook) or a quant trading firm — the first of its kind — one started by professors, mathematicians, and computer scientists, not financial experts, that would revolutionize the industry.

Resilience in Pursuit

Jim was no stranger to tragedy, challenges, and setbacks. He lost two adult sons. The US government fired him and later relentlessly investigated him (never finding anything unethical in his businesses). He rode a moped from North to South America, often checking into a jail cell for his own safety!

Yet, he taught me that perseverance is not simply about enduring but about giving your visions and employees and colleagues a chance to succeed. This tenacity was clear as he spent a decade building a world-class math department from scratch and then perfecting a trading algorithm that many initially doubted.

Embrace Fortuity

Hope for good luck, Jim proposed. It might seem out of place in a list of principles from an uber-rational mathematician, but Jim knew that serendipity plays a role in all endeavors. His life was a testament to being at the right place at the right time and doing the right thing when it mattered the most.

A Life of Pondering, Lived Fully

Each decade of Jim’s life was a chapter of exploration and purpose. From cracking the cryptic codes of Cold War cryptology to empowering the next generation of scientists, his journey was one of relentless pursuit of his many curiosities. His final years, often described as retirement, were filled with active engagement in philanthropy, travel to remote destinations like Nepal, Chile, and the Georgian Republic, always focusing on the pure sciences that had always captivated his heart.

His Legacy

His impact is indelible while he shunned the limelight, unlike others in his field, preferring the quiet consistency of his work and thoughts. He once said, quoting Animal Farm, that, like Benjamin the Donkey, he’d rather not have the flies ever-buzzing about his business if it meant he didn’t have the tail. His principles are not just a blueprint for those financiers aspiring to replicate his fortune but for anyone who seeks to make a difference through purity of intent and clarity of vision.

Lastly, Jim was a lifelong mariner — he frequently took to the seas in his yacht, the Archimedes. He told me in the podcast we recorded on Father’s Day 2020 that his favorite book was the naval thriller The Captain, set in WWII, which is now out of print. In thinking about his legacy, I cannot refrain from quoting one of my favorite poems, which is inextricably linked to him, also about a heroic captain, a man not unlike Jim.

O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up — for you the flag is flung — for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths — for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Jim, with all my heart, I wish you favorable winds.




Enjoy this clip from the longer podcast above, where Jim shares what he learned about leadership from his hero, Abraham Lincoln.


To learn more about Jim Simons, click here for the life lessons he taught me.


The 2019 Groundbreaking Ceremony at the Simons Observatory with, from left to right, Adrian Lee, David Spergel, me, Jim, and Marilyn Simons.


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These are the profound questions that today’s esteemed guest, Nick Bostrom, has explored in his highly anticipated new book, Deep Utopia. Nick is a Professor at Oxford University, where he heads the Future of Humanity Institute as its founding director.

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Professor Brian Keating

Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor at UC San Diego. Host of The INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE Podcast Authored: Losing the Nobel Prize & Think like a Nobel Prize Winner