Secret Science Nerds is a column highlighting the scientists and science advocates hiding in plain sight. From musicians to actors to geek icons, a love of science unites them all.
You probably know the name Brian May best as the co-founder and lead guitarist of the seminal rock band “Queen,” especially since he was recently ranked as the 2nd greatest guitarist of all time. But did you know that the accomplished musician known for blistering guitar licks also has a PhD in astrophysics, has collaborated with NASA, and even co-founded an asteroid awareness campaign?
The secret science side of Brian May started way back during his time at Hampton Grammar School, where his success in mathematics, physics, and applied mathematics led him to graduate from Imperial College London with degrees in physics and mathematics. His PhD studies at the school, which focused on “looking at reflected light from interplanetary dust and the velocity of dust in the plane of the Solar System,” were interrupted by the rising success of Queen — a decent excuse.
It wasn’t until 2007, almost 40 years after the inception of the epic rock band, that May returned to complete his PhD in astrophysics with his thesis, “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.” That October, he was appointed as a Visiting Researcher in Imperial College, where he continues to pursue his interest in astronomy alongside the Imperial Astrophysics Group.
In addition to two scientific research papers he co-authored in college, May also co-authored “Bang! – The Complete History of the Universe” (published in 2006) with Sir Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott, and “The Cosmic Tourist” (published in 2012). 2008 saw asteroid 52665 Brianmay named in his honor, which would eventually lead to his 2014 co-founding of an asteroid awareness campaign dubbed Asteroid Day, which continues today. The campaign’s mission is to be “a global awareness campaign where people from around the world come together to learn about asteroids, the impact hazard they may pose, and what we can do to protect our planet, families, communities, and future generations from future asteroid impacts.”
In 2015, May had the opportunity to collaborate with NASA during their New Horizons mission and got to see the first high-quality stereo images of the dwarf planet. Here’s his response to seeing those images for the first time:
I was, of course, as always, obsessed with finding stereoscopic opportunities while I was there, and the Gods of the Underworld must have been with me, because I was there when the first 2 by 2 mosaic full-planet picture was downloaded from the probe, and assembled into exactly the required highish res partner to the iconic ‘last-look’ photo which preceded the final fly-by.
That’s just the briefest look at May’s life of scientific intrigue and curiosity, one overshadowed by the success of his incredible musical career, but no less important. Let’s hope May has many more years ahead of him to use his starpower to continue his scientific pursuits and encourage that same curiosity in others.
Did you know that rock star Brian May was also an astrophysicist? Are there any other secret science nerds you’d like us to profile? Let us know in the comments below!
Image: AsteroidDay.org, NASA/Joel Kowsky