Jacob Bourjaily spoke in Grand Rapids on dark matter, neutrinos and the cosmic speed limit.

Jacob Bourjaily stood before an audience of about 100 people who had come to hear him at the Schuler Books and Music store on 28th Street last Saturday and struggled a bit to shed some light on the topic of dark matter.

And why wouldn't he? Dark matter cannot be seen with the naked eye or felt against our skin, yet the Earth apparently is passing through great quantities of this mysterious substance every second without it affecting us in the least.

Even the name "dark matter" is a bit misleading -- it's not made up of electrons, protons and neutrons that we associate with our material world. Rather it is "clumpy stuff that is heavy -- massive weakly interactive particles," says Bourjaily, a Grand Rapids native who recently was appointed to the Society of Fellows at Harvard University after receiving his doctorate in theoretical physics.

He went on to explain that researchers now believe most of the matter of the universe isn't made of stars, planets, moons, comets and asteroids -- it's made of gigantic spheres of dark matter, not directly detected by our optical and radio telescopes, that congregate around galaxies.

And while dark matter sounds so fantastic that it should belong only in science fiction, Bourjaily told the audience that he wouldn't be surprised if the concept and proof of the substance were standard fare in high school science texts in 10 years. More than once he said that scientists working at the Center for European Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switz. and other research facilities worldwide were on the verge of proving the existence of this elusive stuff.

On another note, Bourjaily offered some words of caution on accepting as fact a report issued about three weeks ago from scientists at CERN and a research facility about 437 miles away in Gran Sasso, Italy that they had observed more than 15,000 events where neutrinos -- particles that can easily pass through the entire Earth without hitting anything -- travelled faster than light, nature's cosmic speed limit. The speed was measured at only 20 parts per million faster than light, the researchers said, but it would shake the foundation of physics if they proved any particle could move faster than light.

Bourjaily said the researchers probably should have taken more time to uncover any possible source of experimental error -- a year of double-checking all the variables wouldn't be uncommon for a test as complicated as the OPERA experiment at Gran Sasso -- while it appears they issued the report after only about a few months. "They are all critiquing it now."

Bourjaily, a graduate of Forest Hills High School who was active in the Grand Rapids Amateur Astronomical Association and the 2002 recipient of the local Roger B. Chaffee Scholarship, said he spent time with the research team at CERN that is conducting experiments with the Large Hadron Collider that is attempting to capture an image of dark matter. To do so, the team is enlisting the aid of a 7-story-tall camera that weighs 7,000 tons on the world's largest and highest energy particle accelerator.

Although his work currently takes him to some of the world's leading research centers, Bourjaily was gracious about his start in the study of the origins of the universe. "I am here today because of the opportunities I had growing up here," said Bourjaily, 27, and later added: "I actually got my key to the observatory (James C. Veen Observatory in Lowell Township) at age 15 -- before my driver's license."