With support from the John Templeton Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, Yale University physics professor David DeMille is launching a “pioneering investigation” into the origins of the universe.

According to a Yale news release, DeMille plans to build a novel apparatus to sense the existence of subatomic particles that have never before been seen. These particles are thought to have played a role in determining the formation of matter. Proving the existence or non-existence of these particles will likely provide a window into the earliest moments following the Big Bang, researchers say.

DeMille plans to undertake the project in partnership with collaborators David Kawall of the University of Massachusetts, Tanya Zelevinsky of Columbia University, and Steve Lamoreaux of Yale. The grants from the John Templeton Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation, totaling $3 million, will support project staff and laboratory equipment.

“Our approach is a radical departure from the large particle accelerators that generally come to mind when you look for exotic particles,” DeMille said. “Building on work that has been done at Yale, we will conduct a new type of experiment to probe for new particles and forces responsible for the predominance of matter over antimatter in the universe. We are very grateful to the Templeton and Heising-Simons foundations for their support, which was critical for our team to launch this work.”

Finding new subatomic particles remains challenging. In the 1960s, physicists predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle in the Standard Model of particle physics, but it was not until 2013 that scientists at the CERN facility in Switzerland could prove its existence using the Large Hadron Collider — a facility measuring 17 miles in circumference and costing over $7.5 billion.

In contrast to the work at CERN, DeMille’s team will design and assemble an instrument, about 15 feet across, in an on-campus Yale physics laboratory. The device will be made up of roughly 100,000 custom-designed and fabricated parts. It will take a team of six postdoctoral fellows and graduate students three years to construct.

“Our device will focus a cryogenic beam of diatomic molecules through an electric field to detect a nuclear Schiff moment,” DeMille said in a statement. “This technique will yield a 100-fold increase in sensitivity over the current state of the art, enough to say whether or not new particles with the properties posited by many theories to explain the matter-antimatter asymmetry actually exist. This determination will either validate 30 years of mainstream work in theoretical physics or send the field in another direction.”

DeMille’s research partnership seeks to answer a persistent question in physics known as the matter-antimatter asymmetry: Why is the universe made entirely of matter, when an equal number of matter particles and antimatter particles were created just after the Big Bang? Astronomical observations show that the matter and antimatter mostly annihilated each other, turning back into energy. The antimatter was eliminated, but a tiny fraction of matter was somehow left over, forming all the objects in the universe today.

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