By Steve Koppes
Supercomputer simulation of an exploding star courtesy of the Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes

University of Chicago scholars have traditionally taken pride in breaking through academic boundaries to get at the solutions to challenging problems. That approach paid off for Chicago futures trader William Eckhardt, SM ’70, who studied mathematics and philosophy as a graduate student at the University.

“That helped in my business because I found myself in a position where I had to invent a theory of trade. This really hadn’t happened before,” says Eckhardt, who received his master’s degree in mathematics from the University in 1970.

Theory of Trade

Eckhardt’s studies in the philosophy of science helped him to understand how to build a valid new theory of trade. For nearly three decades, he has extensively researched futures price action and has developed many technical trading systems.

Now Eckhardt has donated $20 million to the University to benefit the Physical Sciences Division, a gift inspired by a major program to build new fields of scientific expertise and expand existing efforts.

Center for Physical and Computational Sciences

The University’s Board of Trustees has endorsed plans to make significant investments in scientific programs that will span the biological, physical and social sciences.

These plans include construction of the Center for Physical and Computational Sciences, an initiative in applied mathematics and computation, and greatly expanded programs in genomics and personalized medicine and in the neurosciences. The University also is considering a faculty proposal to establish a new molecular engineering institute.

“As one of our own alumni, Bill Eckhardt possess a deep appreciation for the University’s long-standing, multi-disciplinary approach that fosters work across the boundaries of science,” says University President Robert Zimmer. “His gift will have a galvanizing impact on the ability of our scientists to carry out their most innovative work.”

University of Chicago Trustee Thomas Pritzker says: “We are in a time of revolutionary change in science and technology that is fundamentally altering how we understand our world. The University of Chicago will invest heavily to provide agenda-setting leadership in fields that are on the cusp of discovery.”

Many of the University’s science initiatives are focused on a paradigm shift that characterizes some of the most exciting areas of science today—a systems approach that allows understanding based upon not only the knowledge of the behavior of individual components, but in addition, how these components interact and fit together into a larger structure. In these systems, multiple, interacting components give rise to properties of the whole that are incomprehensible to studies that view parts in isolation.

William Eckhardt Research Institutes

The Research Institutes building will become a major venue for the University’s research in systems-level science. The University will rename the Research Institutes building the William Eckhardt Research Institutes building in Eckhardt’s honor, following its renovation. The Eckhardt Research Institutes building will be a major component of the new Center for Physical and Computational Sciences, with construction scheduled to begin in fall 2010. The Center will consist of a seamless structure on the west side of Ellis Avenue between 56th and 57th streets. The University has selected HOK as the architect.

The Center will house the Computation Institute, the Enrico Fermi Institute, the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics and part of the James Franck Institute, along with the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Department of Computer Science.

“The tremendous generosity of Bill Eckhardt will make a major impact on the great science done at the University,” says Robert Fefferman, Dean of the University of Chicago’s Physical Sciences Division. “We can expect some of the most fundamental discoveries of the future to take place in the Eckhardt Research Institutes building, just as they have taken place in the Research Institutes since the time of Enrico Fermi. The list of individuals who have occupied this building reads like a ‘who’s who’ of 20th-century science and, we anticipate, will be the home of the leading scientists of the next century.”

A “Market Wizard”

Eckhardt holds two mathematics degrees, a master’s from the University of Chicago (1970), and a bachelor’s from DePaul University (1969). He is chairman and CEO of Eckhardt Trading Company and was among the traders featured in the book The New Market Wizards, by Jack Schwager, published in 1992.

“We as individuals and collectively as a society must divide our giving between the support of urgent, current necessities, and incremental, lasting contributions,” Eckhardt says. “My contribution to the University of Chicago is an investment in science, in the future, in the understanding of our world.”

As a graduate student at the University, Eckhardt worked closely with the late Saunders Mac Lane, the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Mathematics. Eckhardt says he regarded Mac Lane as “one of the brightest lights I’ve ever known,” and the University of Chicago as “one of the great universities of the world.”

Eckhardt co-founded C & D Commodities with Richard Dennis in 1978, and they operated it together until 1987. Eckhardt established Eckhardt Trading Company in 1991; the firm currently manages more than $800 million in accounts.

He joined the Physical Sciences Visiting Committee at the University in 2006. He also serves on the International Advisory Board of the Pacific Institute of Theoretical Physics.

Originally published on July 14, 2008.