Two Edgy Funders Team Up in a Unique Bid to Explore the Origins of the Universe

The hunt for subatomic particles can require massive, high-energy facilities. But $3 million in funding from two foundations will back a lab-sized, highly sensitive instrument to explore secrets of matter and antimatter. 

One of the great questions surrounding the origins of the universe involves how matter emerged as a champion from the Big Bang, leaving its reversed twin antimatter in the dust. In the early moments of the universe, there would have been equal amounts of matter and antimatter, which is like matter but with opposite charge. It’s a mystery how the universe evolved to its current state, in which almost everything is made of matter. 

Templeton and Heising-Simons, two science funders we follow closely, are drawn to exactly these kinds of questions, albeit for somewhat different reasons. They’ve each pitched in for a total of $3 million to support a team of researchers who think they may have a new way to get to the bottom of it. 

The grant will fund a team of researchers led by Yale’s David DeMille to create a new apparatus that will explore the origins of the universe and the nature of matter. It seeks out evidence of new particles that could explain matter-antimatter asymmetry. 

It’s also, however, an exciting new approach to hunting for such particles. As the announcement points out, it took decades and the 17-mile-circumference Large Hadron Collider to detect the Higgs boson. DeMille’s team is taking a different approach, using lab-sized experiments as opposed to a massive particle accelerator. The group is building an elaborate instrument just 15 feet across in a Yale lab. “This technique will yield a 100-fold increase in sensitivity over the current state of the art,” DeMille said.


This kind of grant is right in the wheelhouse of the young Heising-Simons Foundation, whose science funding is led by former Moore program director Cyndi Atherton. The funder’s program is devoted almost entirely to the physical sciences, an underfunded arena, and while it’s been ramping up giving, it doesn’t have giant war chest like Moore for example. 

Heising-Simons strategically sends sizable chunks of money to efforts that could have a big bang for the buck (pun not intended). It also likes to back work that will develop new instrumentation to advance the field, even if the particular experiment that drives it doesn’t end with extraordinary results. 

For the Templeton Foundation, the motivation is a little more philosophical. As we’ve written about at length, the funder is defined by “Big Questions,” which can be related to theoretical physics, psychology, genetics, theology, or philosophy, to name a handful. It only wants to kick in if a project is pursuing knowledge about the nature of reality, and often only if it’s something other foundations might balk at. 

This tolerance for risk, to get involved with projects that might lie just outside the comfort zone or budget of public funding channels, is where the two overlap. This $3 million experiment, requiring novel equipment that will take three years to build, falls right in that sweet spot.