Brian May: From selling out stadiums with Queen to the music of the spheres

After decades as rock’n’roll royalty, Brian May returned to his first love, astronomy, to complete a PhD he had started 30 years earlier, with a little help from Patrick Moore

Thu, May 9, 2013, 07:00

Long before he became a star, Brian May was a stargazer. As a child he was inspired by Patrick Moore’s The Sky At Night to get his first telescope. After graduating with a degree in mathematics and physics from Imperial College London, May embarked on an astronomy PhD studying interplanetary dust and its movement in our solar system.

Thirty years later he completed it. In-between, he had fame and fortune and everything that goes with it in Queen, one of the biggest bands of all time.

“My studies ran out of steam and got too busy with everything else. Queen was just beginning to be a blossoming bush which turned into a giant tree,” he says.

His concert at the Olympia next month with his long-time female collaborator Kerry Ellis, with whom he made the album Anthem , will be an altogether more scaled-down affair. “I like the big shows. I like it to be loud and bombastic with toys and stuff, but there is this other thing, going back to your roots as a musician with no support really with guitar and voice and occasional keyboards. Everything is real and in the moment,” he says.

May finally graduated in 2007 with a PhD in astronomy. “I felt an enormous pride. I had to clear my life out for a whole year to make that final study,” he says.

“I was incredibly fortunate to have such a great supervisor in Prof Michael Robinson. He wasn’t easy on me. He was very hard on me because he had to be.

“A PhD isn’t worth anything unless you nearly die. Three distinct times I nearly wanted to give up. It was killing my brain. I had a few friends who kept me optimistic.”

Among those offering encouragement was Patrick Moore. The pair became good friends and collaborated on a book in 2006 entitled Bang! The Complete History of the Universe . May was a regular visitor to Moore’s house at Selsey, west Sussex.

“He was such an amazingly social person. He created a hub for astronomers like me. It was like a boy’s world; the rest of the world wasn’t in there. You were in a very rarefied atmosphere.”

May’s closeness to his erstwhile mentor is reflected in the honour of being named an executor of his will following Moore’s death last December. They had more than astronomy in common. Moore was a prolific composer in his own right, though strictly old school – he had no interest in Queen.

“He said ‘Brian don’t take it personally, but I don’t like anything after 1870’,” recalls May with a laugh.

“I’m trying to make sure that his legacy is preserved and put in a place where it will be enjoyed in the future. His output is enormous, and very beautiful some of it.

“I’m looking after all the recorded works and trying to get them into a form that we can re-release them some day.”

Ostensibly, astronomy and music should have little in common, but that is not how the ancient Greeks saw it. Both Pythagoras and Ptolemy, who did so much to advance astronomy, were convinced that the movement of heavenly bodies and music were both governed by the concept of harmony and that understanding one could lead to understanding the other.


Musical scientists
May is not the first musician to also be an astronomer or astrophysicist. Sir William Herschel, who discovered Uranus, was a court composer, while Albert Einstein was a violinist. And physics professor and television presenter Brian Cox, who has done so much to popularise science, played keyboard for 1990s band D:Ream.

May explains: “There is a kind of purity about pure music and pure science which takes you into a different universe because you are looking for something more than what you see around you.”

He says the primary purpose of science is to be impartial, yet too many scientists allow their work to be manipulated by those with an agenda. He is fiercely opposed to the UK government’s badger cull, for example, which he believes is an example of policy-making determined by flawed science.

“Sciences need to be protected and they need to protect themselves and their positions of impartiality and anything that impugns that means that an alarm bell should ring very loudly,” he says. “You can never go into a scientific experiment thinking you know the answer because then it is dead. You have to have a completely open mind and science is riddled with [instances] of where this has gone wrong.”

ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST
If you are lucky enough to live below pristine skies in spring or autumn, you can sometimes see a faint scattering of dust-like particles above the horizon.

This is known as the zodiacal light, so called because it can be observed along the Zodiac, the constellations through which the sun, moon and planets travel and can be seen.

Dr Brian May’s thesis Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud is available in book form on Amazon, but is unlikely to outsell anything he did with Queen.

Nevertheless, he is intensely proud of a PhD which was 30 years in the making, returning to data which he first collated in the early 1970s. Fortunately, the subject was arcane enough that his thesis had not been overtaken by other researchers.

For his studies, he built a spectrometer and spent many nights at the La Palma observatory in the Canary Islands observing the zodiacal light.

Zodiacal dust is a combination of dust left over from the formation of the solar system and dust created by collisions with minor planets.

May also found that some of it was composed of dust drifting in from interstellar space, which was a “surprise”, he says.

“Almost all of the studies of dust have been photometric – just seeing how bright it is in various directions – but our study was dynamic.

“We were trying to find out where it was going and how it was going,” he said.

May discovered that the zodiacal dust is moving in the same direction as the planets as they orbit the sun.


Brian May and Kerry Ellis play the Olympia Theatre on June 30th