George Smoot, who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics, has donated the majority of his winnings to help set up a new centre that will seek to explain the mysteries of the cosmos. The $8.1m Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics will draw together some 50 scientists as well as 20 post-doctoral researchers and PhD students from the University of California in Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US.

Smoot, 62, who is based at the University of California, was awarded last year’s Nobel Prize with colleague John Mather for the discovery of anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background radiation. But recent declines in science funding have prompted him to part with $500,000 of his $700,000 prize money so that the “next generation” of cosmologists have the facilities to make their breakthroughs. “It seemed to me that the winnings could be matched by others and make a significant difference in many young people’s lives, allowing them to go forward with their education and careers,” Smoot told physicsworld.com. He added that he did consider using the money to pay off his mortgage, but didn’t think the ensuing security would really change his life.

The other endowments include $1.5m from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and $600,000 from Saul Perlmutter, based at the Lawrence Berkeley lab, who shared this year’s Gruber Cosmology Prize with Brian Schmidt for discovering that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. These funds will be used to hire post-doctoral fellows and visitors, support students and the faculty, and run educational outreach programmes such as lectures and workshops.

The centre will occupy the same space as the University of California’s Center for Theoretical Physics on the top floor of LeConte Hall, where Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller once had offices. Currently there are numerous cosmologists strewn between the astronomy and physics departments of the University of California and the Lawrence Berkeley lab. “The centre brings all of these people in a way that will generate new ideas, lead to more collaborations and ideally spawn new experimental tests of cosmological theories,” said Bob Sanders, manager of science communications at the University of California.