What is matter made of? What is light? Why do objects have mass? How do the most basic elements of the universe interact? What happened at the beginning of the cosmos? And, above all, how does answering these questions contribute to our daily lives?

These are some of the questions posed by the Saphir Institute.

The MillenniumInstitute for Subatomic Physics at the High Energy Frontier, SAPHIR, is a scientific research center funded by the Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) and hosted by Universidad Andrés Bello, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María and Universidad de La Serena. The SAPHIR institute is staffed by scientists who seek to bring together all the research efforts in subatomic physics connected to CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), unraveling the mysteries hidden in the universe smaller than atoms.

Instruments to recreate the Big Bang

Today we know that everything we can see is made up of 12 elementary particles: six types of quarks, three types of neutrinos and three types of leptons. In addition, there are four particles that mediate the interaction between elementary particles and the Higgs boson, which gives mass to most particles. We also know that ordinary matter, that which we can see, touch or pick up with our instruments, makes up only 4% of the total energy in the universe: the remaining 96% is "dark matter" and "dark energy". But what is the nature of these "dark" elements?

Much of what we know and what we want to discover about the nature of subatomic particles has been discovered through particle accelerators. And of these, the largest and most important in the world is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), located in Geneva, Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider accelerates protons in opposite directions, almost at the speed of light in a 27 km tunnel, and collides them in a detector called Atlas. The collision at Atlas replicates the conditions of the Big Bang. That is, the moment when the universe was created. We could then say that Atlas is a super-telescope that allows us to observe the Big Bang and a super-microscope that allows us to study the smallest particles we know.

Researchers from the Saphir Millennium Institute have been involved in the construction of the collider since its inception.

Atlas is one of the most complex scientific devices ever created by humans: it is 44 metres long and 22 metres in diameter, and weighs 7,000 tonnes. That is, it is almost as long as two tennis courts, is the height of an eight-storey building and is heavier than three space shuttles like Atlantis at liftoff (i.e. with full boosters and fuel tank). Its creation, use and improvements involve 232 institutions in 38 countries. And one of those countries is Chile.

The director of the Saphir Millennium Institute, Sergey Kuleshov, is one of the scientists involved in building Atlas since its inception. And the Saphir team is the only physics group in Latin America contracted by the Atlas experiment to manufacture inputs to upgrade and improve its performance.

Technology to revolutionise the world

Understanding how the fundamental building blocks of matter work is such a big and complex challenge that it requires the development of new and complex technologies. Technologies that, in fact, have applications even outside the field of physics. Research at CERN and in particle physics has led to the development of medical technologies such as positron emission tomography and nuclear medicine. In addition, CERN's work has revolutionised computing and digital communication. In fact, the World Wide Web was born at CERN, in 1989: it was created to share information quickly and automatically between research groups and universities around the world. In 1993, CERN released the World Wide Web software into the public domain and subsequently made it available through an open licence, allowing the network to flourish.

Today, CERN and collaborating initiatives such as the Saphir Millennium Institute continue to probe deep into the world of physics, not only to better understand the laws of the universe, but also to develop new technologies and applications with the potential to revolutionize the world.