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Updated 11:30 AM December 6, 2004




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Physics student awarded Marshall Scholarship

Some high school students like to drive around with music cranked up loud. Jacob Bourjaily's favorite drive-time entertainment during his senior year was the taped lectures of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.
Bourjaily (Photo courtesy Jacob Bourjaily)

Apparently something sank in. When Bourjaily came to U-M two years ago, he sailed through introductory physics and had aced senior quantum mechanics by the end of his freshman year. By the next year, he'd become an associate member of the Michigan Center for Theoretical Physics—the first undergraduate student ever chosen for the honor.

Now, another honor will offer him an opportunity to further his knowledge of science. The 20-year-old physics and mathematics major from Grand Rapids is one of eight students from the Midwest selected for the highly competitive Marshall Scholarship for 2005. The program, financed by the government of the United Kingdom, selects about 40 American students annually to spend two to three years studying at the British university of their choice.

Bourjaily is an ideal choice for the Marshall Scholarship, says associate professor of physics Timothy McKay.

"Jake is incredibly excited about learning about every subject—physics in particular," McKay says. "His enthusiasm for new ideas and the pure pleasure with which he makes connections between what he knows already and what he's learning is really irresistible."

Part of Bourjaily's enthusiasm comes from sharing his knowledge, McKay says. In high school, he created and presented weekly programs at the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium. At U-M, he has shared his love of science with middle school students through the Student Physics Society's outreach programs.

"There's probably no reward as great as the look on somebody's face when they first see or understand something that they didn't know about," Bourjaily says. "It's fun to explain all the things we know and then inspire them to be curious about the things we don't understand."

It's those "things we don't understand" that fascinate Bourjaily. His dream is nothing less than learning the secrets of the universe.

"I'd like to understand gravity in terms of how we understand particles and the rest of physics," he says. "Right now, our views of gravity and our views of particle physics are inconsistent with each other. I'd like to see that resolved."

His current research—under the direction of Gordon Kane, the Victor Weisskopf Collegiate Professor of Physics—deals with the composition of the universe. "An enormous amount of energy in the universe is made up of things we don't understand—what we call dark energy and dark matter," Bourjaily says. "It's almost comical that we understand so little. I'd like to have an impact in increasing that understanding."

His impact already is being felt in the physics world. Last summer, he was the only undergraduate student at the 42nd International School of Subnuclear Physics in Erice, Sicily, typically a school for advanced graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. There, he was named Best Student, earned the Paul A.M. Dirac Diploma and was chosen Best Presenter of a Theoretical Subject. He also has been invited to several universities to speak about his research on dark matter cosmology.

"Jacob has been an exceptional student and citizen since the moment he set foot on our campus," Provost Paul N. Courant says. "He richly deserves this opportunity to study abroad, and we're confident he will continue to excel."

As a Marshall Scholar in 2005, Bourjaily will study mathematics at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. "Cambridge offers the strongest coursework in mathematics and physics anywhere in the world," he says. "I'll be able to go very deeply into the subjects, to deepen and broaden my knowledge."

The Marshall Scholarships were established in 1953 as a British gesture of thanks to the people of the United States for assistance received after World War II under the Marshall Plan.

For more information about the Marshall Scholarships, visit For more about Bourjaily, visit

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