Queen Guitarist Brian May Is Also an Astrophysicist: Read His PhD Thesis Online

Pho­to by ESO/G. Huede­pohl, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Queen could­n’t pos­si­bly have been Queen with­out Fred­die Mer­cury, nor could it have been Queen with­out Bri­an May. Thanks not least to the recent biopic, Bohemi­an Rhap­sody, the band’s already larg­er-than-life lead singer has become even larg­er still. But its gui­tarist, despite the film’s sur­face treat­ment of his char­ac­ter, is in his own way an equal­ly implau­si­ble fig­ure. Not only did he show musi­cal promise ear­ly, form­ing his first group while still at school, he also got his A Lev­els in physics, math­e­mat­ics, and applied math­e­mat­ics, going on to earn a Bach­e­lor of Sci­ence in Physics with hon­ors at Impe­r­i­al Col­lege Lon­don.

Nat­u­ral­ly, May then went for his PhD, con­tin­u­ing at Impe­r­i­al Col­lege where he stud­ied the veloc­i­ty of, and light reflect­ed by, inter­plan­e­tary dust in the Solar Sys­tem. He began the pro­gram in 1970, but “in 1974, when Queen was but a princess in its infan­cy, May chose to aban­don his doc­tor­ate stud­ies to focus on the band in their quest to con­quer the world.” So wrote The Tele­graph’s Felix Lowe in 2007, the year the by-then 60-year-old (and long world-famous) rock­er final­ly hand­ed in his the­sis. “The 48,000-word tome, Radi­al Veloc­i­ties in the Zodi­a­cal Dust Cloud, which sounds sus­pi­cious­ly like a Spinal Tap LP, was stored in the loft of his home in Sur­rey.” You can read it online here.

Accord­ing to its abstract, May’s the­sis “doc­u­ments the build­ing of a pres­sure-scanned Fab­ry-Per­ot Spec­trom­e­ter, equipped with a pho­to­mul­ti­pli­er and pulse-count­ing elec­tron­ics, and its deploy­ment at the Obser­va­to­rio del Tei­de at Iza­ña in Tener­ife, at an alti­tude of 7,700 feet (2567 m), for the pur­pose of record­ing high-res­o­lu­tion spec­tra of the Zodi­a­cal Light.” Space.com describes the Zodia­cial Light as “a misty dif­fuse cone of light that appears in the west­ern sky after sun­set and in the east­ern sky before sun­rise,” one that has long tricked casu­al observers into “see­ing it as the first sign of morn­ing twi­light.” Astronomers now rec­og­nize it as “reflect­ed sun­light shin­ing on scat­tered space debris clus­tered most dense­ly near the sun.”

In his abstract, May also notes the unusu­al­ly long peri­od of study as 1970–2007, made pos­si­ble in part by the fact that lit­tle oth­er research had been done in this par­tic­u­lar sub­ject area dur­ing Queen’s reign on the charts and there­after. Still, he had catch­ing up to do, includ­ing obser­va­tion­al work in Tener­ife (as much of a hard­ship post­ing as that isn’t). Since being award­ed his doc­tor­ate, May’s sci­en­tif­ic activ­i­ties have con­tin­ued, as have his musi­cal ones and oth­er pur­suits besides, such as ani­mal-rights activism and stere­og­ra­phy. (Some­times these inter­sect: the 2017 pho­to­book Queen in 3‑D, for exam­ple, uses a VR view­ing device of May’s own design.) The next time you meet a young­ster dither­ing over whether to go into astro­physics or found one of the most suc­cess­ful rock bands of all time, point them to May’s exam­ple and let them know doing both isn’t with­out prece­dent.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gui­tarist Bri­an May Explains the Mak­ing of Queen’s Clas­sic Song, ‘Bohemi­an Rhap­sody’

Bri­an May’s Home­made Gui­tar, Made From Old Tables, Bike and Motor­cy­cle Parts & More

Stephen Hawking’s Ph.D. The­sis, “Prop­er­ties of Expand­ing Uni­vers­es,” Now Free to Read/Download Online

Watch 94 Free Lec­tures From the Great Cours­es: Dystopi­an Fic­tion, Astro­physics, Gui­tar Play­ing & Much More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (6)
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  • George Crosby says:

    “Woody Paul” Christ­man aka “King of the Cow­boy Fid­dlers” from the cow­boy band “Rid­ers in the Sky” (they did the music for the movie Toy Sto­ry) has a PhD in Plas­ma Physics from MIT. Yes, the King of Cow­boy Fid­dlers is a Rock­et Sci­en­tist!!!

  • Belle says:

    Love­ly to see well known peo­ple with strong left brain as well as right brain men­tal activ­i­ty! Wow!

  • Monique says:

    Bri­an May is so genius!! Tal­ent­ed, kind, sweet tge rea­son why he deserved all of this. Long live leg­end!! We quee­nies are so proud of you! :)

  • Ann Jeffries says:

    My son, Christo­pher, is an aero­space engi­neer (and a drum­mer in his band!) He had to explain to me what astro­physics is! I adore Queen and hope my dream to meet you, Bri­an, and Roger comes true when you are in Wash­ing­ton DC this month! It would be such a dream come true. (I have a lit­tle hedge hog present for you.) Music and space will always go togeth­er in our fam­i­ly and yours! May God bless your fam­i­ly, your kind­ness and com­pas­sion. Espe­cial­ly today, on our plan­et, we need more Bri­an Mays! Hope, hope, hope to shake your hand at the stage door. Love, Ann (Miss Fred­die so much.)

  • Jeannie says:

    Got my A‑levels in physics, pure math, and applied math in Hert­ford­shire. Went on to get my BSc and ARCS in physics at Impe­r­i­al Col­lege in 1970. Very much inspired along the way by Sir Patrick Moore. Did­n’t know how much I had in com­mon with Sir Bri­an May. Wish I had met him when we were there. Great mem­o­ries.

  • Tabitha Bauman says:

    The two fields aren’t as dis­parate as you might think. Music, at its core, is real­ly just very beau­ti­ful math.

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