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Answering One Question to Better Understand the Universe

Heising-Simons Foundation Supports Research Seeking Axion Dark Matter

March 25, 2015

Seattle—University of Washington College of Arts & Sciences. When considering what makes up the universe, it’s surprising that scientists could focus on just one yes/no question. But that’s exactly what a group of researchers supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation is doing.

“Does axion dark matter exist?”

Scientists across the US are working together to determine if axions — hypothetical subatomic particles — are the leading candidate for what makes up dark matter. Although this is a big question about the universe, Heising-Simons Foundation Science Program Director Cyndi Atherton said that researchers may be able to answer it in just a few years’ time.

“It’s a small range of particle masses to investigate, relatively speaking. So we’ll look for axion dark matter in that small range, and we’ll see it – or not,” Atherton said. “Either way, we will know more about the universe.”

If the axion does not exist, researchers will consider what other types of theoretical particles could make up our universe. But if it does, Atherton said, “It will basically rewrite physics.”

Only five percent of the universe consists of normal matter that we can observe with modern instruments, she explained. The rest of the universe consists of 68 percent dark energy and 27 percent dark matter – matter that does not interact with light and that can't be observed by any current technique. If axions were the explanation for all of dark matter, we’d be able to comprehend 27 percent more – another full quarter – of the universe around us.

The Heising-Simons Foundation chose to fund this research not only because of its promise for understanding, but also because its investment is substantial enough to allow researchers to move the needle in a major area of scientific discovery. The Heising-Simons Foundation has awarded three-year grants to researchers from institutions including the following:

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

National Radio Astronomy Observatory/University of Virginia

University of California-Berkeley

University of Colorado-Boulder

University of Florida

University of Washington

Stanford University

Yale University

These grants are the first investments that the Heising-Simons Foundation has made in searching for axion dark matter, and Atherton anticipates future collaborations to include more research and scientific symposia.

As leaders in the search for dark matter, The Department of Energy and National Science Foundation recently selected the University of Washington and its Department of Physics as the site for a major “Generation 2” dark-matter detector: the Axion Dark-Matter Experiment (ADMX). The ADMX program recently transitioned into a new facility at the UW Center for Experimental Nuclear Physics and Astrophysics, thereby greatly expanding the experiment infrastructure.

The new site also allows access to the facility by outside collaborations in the search for dark-matter axions, with ultimate goal of either detecting the dark-matter axion or rejecting the dark-matter axion hypothesis at high confidence. The Heising-Simons Foundation support in axion dark-matter research and development will help build up the platform for a future “Generation 3” axion search. This extension of the ADMX program will extend the axion search to nearly the entire range of plausible dark-matter axions, thereby allowing for a “definitive” search.

Gray Rybka, research assistant professor in the Department of Physics leads the development of “Generation 3” axion detection and directs the Heising-Simons supported research. The ADMX program at UW will also continue to serve as a prime research opportunity for undergraduate students in the Department of Physics. Several UW undergraduates already actively participate in this research and have made important research contributions.


About the Heising-Simons Foundation

Mark Heising and Elizabeth Simons established the Heising-Simons Foundation in 2007 to advance sustainable solutions for the environment, enhance the education of young learners, and support groundbreaking research in science. Learn more at

About The College

The College of Arts & Sciences, founded 150 years ago, provides an education of tremendous breadth and depth to more than 27,000 students while advancing research and scholarship in the arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.  The College has more than two dozen interdisciplinary centers and ties to many other centers, enabling scholars in diverse fields to collaborate on complex research questions in the humanities, demography, labor studies, law, astrobiology, and other areas.

The College faculty generate about $90 million in research funds annually, through public and private grants.  The College also serves the community through the more than 280 performances, 60 exhibits and 100 public programs annually offered through the Henry Art Gallery, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, UW World Series, and Meany Hall for the Performing Arts.