Steve Miller pointed me to a fascinating interview with Jim Simons and C. N. Yang, available on YouTube here.
Simons tells the story of how he got kicked out of his job at the IDA in 1968 over his opposition to the Vietnam War, and ended up at Stony Brook as chair of the math department there. He and Yang collaborated on raising money to support anti-war efforts.
They describe how Yang went to Simons to try and find out about fiber bundles and what they might have to do with gauge theory. Simons started by referring Yang to Steenrod’s The Topology of Fibre Bundles, which Yang couldn’t make any sense of (Simons admits he never made it all the way through the book himself). This did in the end lead Simons and Yang to some real understanding of how vector potentials in gauge theory and connections on bundles were the same thing, with monopoles examples of topologically non-trivial bundles. Simons lectured at Stony Brook in 1975 on this, and a paper later that year by Wu and Yang included what became known as the “Wu-Yang dictionary” relating terminology in gauge theory and geometry. Singer learned about this soon thereafter when he visited Stony Brook, and went on to spread the news to Oxford, MIT and elsewhere.
Simons also describes what is going on with plans for the new Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, including some of the thinking that led him to decide to support this. The official ground-breaking ceremony for the new building there was held last week, you can follow construction progress here.