I just made a podcastian acquaintance with an extraordinary guy…
Many of you have probably heard of Queen, the rock group immortalized by the film Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), which I regrettably missed despite hearing the rave reviews.
Years before the film, Queen released the song Bohemian Rhapsody as the first music video, which became a rousing success and opened up a new approach to delivering musical performances to the public.
The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 and received many other awards, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
Some of you may even know that Brian May, the founder of Queen, whose performance in Bohemian Rhapsody was voted the greatest guitar solo ever, also just happens to be Dr. Brian May, astrophysicist.
But I didn’t know that. As I mentioned in a previous post, I love listening to Alan Alda’s Clear+Vivid podcasts. Alda recently interviewed May in a discussion that brought together these two May personae, though May thoroughly agrees with Alda that art and science mesh beautifully. He’s certainly demonstrated that over the decades.
(Much, but not all, of the contents of this post arose from that interview.)
“I don’t believe there’s a difference between arts and science,” May said. As May was growing up, “you had to choose your part. I rebelled against it—fighting against being put in a box. I always came back to the center: being an artist, scientist, and human being are all complementary.”
Speaking of boxes, he described the trigger for one of his childhood passions that remains. Boxes of Weetabix, a cereal popular in the UK, contained a toy inside (like Cracker Jacks, I assume).
When he was about ten, he received two little stereo cards of hippos. After sending away a bit of money and a Weetabix box top, he got a device that made the hippos look alive.
“Why doesn’t everyone do that all the time?” he wondered. “I get a thrill from everything 3-D.”
He later built and patented his own 3-D device, the OWL, and now has a company that manufactures and sells it.
And he built his own stereoscopic device to explore the night sky for his doctoral dissertation.
He was part of the NASA team using astro-stereoscopy, 3D images, in the New Horizons project that took the first pictures of Pluto.
Then he wrote a song, “New Horizons,” in celebration—his first solo release in 20 years. It includes the “voice” of Stephen Hawking, who had said New Horizons’ findings “may help us to understand better how our solar system was formed.”
May told NPR that “the song became about…the indomitable spirit of man to explore the universe around him.”
May had long played in bands, he said, using a guitar that he and his father made from stuff around the house: repurposed mahogany for the neck, a piece of oak table as the body, buttons from his mother’s sewing box, and knitting needles as the tremolo—the part that makes the strings go up and down.
He wanted the guitar to resonate, “come alive”—to make a sound like Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend had. He said the one he and his dad built has served him brilliantly.
He now has a “a little guitar company” making guitars based on his original red one. Are you seeing a pattern here?
At the beginning of the interview, Alda had asked him if he was impressed with himself for all his accomplishments. His response:
“My wife’s not impressed. She says ‘You’re always damn well doing something. You never take time to breathe.’ She’s right. I do too much of everything. Being a perfectionist in a lot of different things is probably not healthy.”
He was a serious student of astronomy—now astrophysics. But after working on his PhD for four years, and being unable to please his supervisor, he says, “I thought I’d be doing science a favor” by moving on. He put his dissertation in a drawer and “went off for 30 years and played music.”
Yet the scientist part of him remained intact. As he tells it, he had become acquainted with Sir Patrick Moore, a famous astronomer in the UK who’d had a TV show for 50 years.
Moore became his mentor and told him: “You should finish your PhD.“
When he spoke publicly about his continuing interest in science, the head of astrophysics at Imperial College, London, called to say that if May was serious, he’d become his supervisor, “but I won’t make life easy for you and you’ll get a fair shot..”
He retrieved his dissertation from the drawer and, while on tour, retyped it on his laptop so it would be digital. Throwing off all other commitments, he spent a year completing the work. It wasn’t easy.
“It was pretty strange—very tough,” he recalls.
“Suddenly you’re being judged.. told what to do, not good enough—I rediscovered what it’s like to be a student, which is s—t.”
Three times he decided to give it up.
Not to mention that he needed to catch up on how astrophysics had evolved over his three-decade absence. He considered himself lucky that his dissertation topic hadn’t been “hot” enough to advance far in that time.
Please bear with me now. May’s thesis was in the motions of interplanetary dust. Specifically, “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.” Not surprisingly, he built the “spectrometer, equipped with a photomultiplier and pulse-counting electronics,” that he used in this effort.
He was awarded his PhD in 2007. In the recent interview, he explained what he was doing in a way that I found easy to follow—despite my lack of background.
His study focused within our solar system—its planets, suns, asteroids, comets, and dust—lots of dust. He wondered about that dust: what it was doing, where it was going, what it had to do with the larger picture of the universe.
The dust shows up through “zodiacal light,” which most of us can’t see if we live in areas where pollution blocks it. We could see it if we were in a desert or on a ship in the ocean. He did his work in the Canary Islands.
The sun goes down along its ecliptic—the path that it follows throughout the year. An hour after sunset, a cone of light from the sun–along the line the sun just traveled—reflects the dust. May saw shifts in the lines of dust and was able to map the speed and direction—and to observe that some lines move in the opposite direction from others.
His finding, which enabled the subtraction of the zodiacal light to gain a better picture, described the dust as a mixture of debris left by comets and even from the collisions of asteroids.
He noted that his work from 30 years ago was now trendy because of more recent findings about exoplanets—the planets that are outside our solar system. Four thousand of these exoplanets have now been identified, he said. They evolve from dust—“from previous supernovas born and died.”
“Every solar system appears to have a dust cloud,” he said. “It’s become of interest.”
He’s now working on a book titled (modestly, he says) “Bang! A Complete History of the Universe.”
His work with NASA includes exploring the potential dangers of asteroids striking earth—learning how to see them and potentially destroy them before they reach us. He says he’s a “very small part” of this effort.
Asteroids have been a concern of his, and he cofounded “Asteroid Day” in 2014. It is now a UN-sanctioned global awareness campaign, coming up on June 30.
He’s also had a “tiny part” in the Perseverance Rover on Mars, which has a stereoscope on board. Did life come with the water we know is on Mars? “We may find out in the next couple of years,” he says.
But still, when Alda asked him near the end of the interview what gives him the most confidence, he said: “Having a guitar in my hand gives me confidence.”
Brian May the human being was very much evident in this interview. He stated quite openly that he’d been extremely anxious a few years ago and had had some panic attacks. He wrote the song “Panic Attack” for Kerry Ellis to sing.
When the pandemic struck and he saw that many people were having panic attacks, he rewrote the song: “Panic Attack 2021 (It’s Gonna Be All Right).” In truth, some may not find the performance soothing…
As a lover of all puns—good, bad, or otherwise—I was struck by the clever title of Alda’s interview with Brian May:
“Space Rocks.” Pretty much pulls everything together, right?