An Error in a Quantum Physics Calculation Led Jeff Bezos to Found Amazon. That Wouldn’t Have Happened to Bill Gates

  • Some years ago, Jeff Bezos shared an anecdote about how a quantum physics problem made him realize that physics wasn’t his thing.

  • Whoever solved the problem did so using the same problem-solving system used by Bill Gates.

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It’s ironic how chaos theory, a branch of mathematics and physics, seemed to work in Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ favor. It led him to give up his career as a mediocre theoretical physicist and become one of the richest and most successful people in the world. If the young Bezos had met Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates during those years, Amazon probably wouldn’t exist today—because Gates would’ve solved the problem.

What problem?

The tale of the physics problem goes like this: At an event of The Economic Club of Washington, the e-commerce magnate laughingly recounted how a quantum physics problem had made him realize that, although he was a good student at Princeton University, he didn’t have the necessary talent to be a theoretical physicist.

After more than three hours of struggling with a very complicated partial differential equation, Bezos and his roommate gave up and decided to ask one of Princeton’s brightest physics students for help. The billionaire and his friend went to the room of the guy in question who, as Bezos recalled, was from Sri Lanka and had a first and last name that was three lines long.

The young man kindly agreed to help them with the problem and after a few seconds of thought, he said, “Cosine.” Bezos and his roommate couldn’t get over their amazement. They had spent three hours and hadn’t solved it, and that guy had done it in 10 seconds, and without even picking up a pencil.

The guy, whose last name seemed endless to Bezos, at least in his retelling, invited him in to show him the result. After three pages of calculations, the correct answer was the one he had given him just by looking at the problem sheet. The future billionaire asked the young man if he had done all those calculations in his head before his first answer, to which the young quantum physics genius replied: “No, that would be impossible.”

Bill Gates and quantum physics. The guy informed Bezos and his friend that three years earlier he had solved a very similar problem. He transferred that process to Bezos’ problem, making the solution simple. The approach is a basic principle in Gates’ problem-solving strategy.

For Gates, the question is more important than the solution. He believes in asking: Who has solved this problem before, and what can we learn from them? In this case, the student had faced a similar problem in the past, so he didn’t have to look to other sources. His previous experience enabled him to solve it more quickly, without even needing to develop it on paper.

A little push from Yasantha Rajakarunanayake. The young man who solved the complex problem was the technologist Yasantha Rajakarunanayake. After seeing his old classmate tell the story, Rajakarunanayake recognized himself in the anecdote and posted about it on X. He pointed out that, if it weren’t for this problem, Amazon would not exist.

That anecdote convinced Bezos that Rajakarunanayake was talented in theoretical physics, but that he lacked that particular ability. So, Bezos opted to change careers. As Yasantha points out in his tweet, it was perhaps the first step the billionaire took in the journey to create Amazon a few years later and, with it, his entire fortune.

Image | Smithsonian via Flickr | Gates Notes

Related | Jeff Bezos Has Spent a Small Fortune on His Art Collection. The Reason Isn’t a Love of Art, But Rather a Love of Money

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