Rock Star Astrophysicist? Yes, and a For-Real Rock Star, Too


Queen guitarist Brian May also has a doctorate in astrophysics. Don Arnold/WireImage/Rastan/iStock
Queen guitarist Brian May also has a doctorate in astrophysics. Don Arnold/WireImage/Rastan/iStock

If you're an aficionado of 1970s rock, you've probably got the soaring guitar licks on Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody” still etched deeply into your gray matter.  But Brian May, the British virtuoso who played those notes, is enough of a science rock star that NASA recently invited him to meetings with researchers working on the agency's New Horizons space probe.

While many stadium rockers used to fancy themselves as cosmic, May actually has a legitimate claim to that distinction. He received a doctorate in astrophysics from London's Imperial College in 2008, where he now is a visiting researcher.

New Horizons captured the first close-up images of the dwarf planet Pluto. May helped out by assembling two of the images captured by the satellite to create the first high-quality stereo image of the distant orb. (Note: To get the 3-D effect, you'll need to buy or make your own stereoscopic viewer.)

 May long has been fascinated with stereoscopy, which as he explains in this YouTube video, is an art form that dates back to the Victorian age.

“Of course the New Horizons guys were already doing serious science on this image as it arrived,” May wrote in his blog. “But I was able to assemble the two images to make the most satisfying stereo view I can ever remember making.”

May also created this video congratulating the New Horizons team on their achievement, which includes images of Pluto accompanied by his famous “Bohemian Rhapsody” solo. 

Music and science have both been longterm passions for May, who earned a scholarship to Imperial College in 1965. It was while studying there that he formed the band Queen with singer Freddie Mercury, bassist John Deacon and drummer Roger Taylor. When the group began to tour, he ended up leaving before completing his Ph.D.  But May continued dabbling in astronomy as a hobby. "It was very difficult at the time and I disappointed my parents who wanted me to go along the academic route," he told BBC News in 2002.

But when Imperial offered him a chance to return and finish his degree work, he jumped at the chance, carrying out astronomical observations on from Tenerife in the Canary Islands, and composing a 48,000-word thesis on the formation of dust clouds in our solar system from asteroid and comet collisions. “It's been the longest gap year ever,” he joked at the time. He went on to pass the customary oral examination, in which his work was scrutinized by experts in his field.

In a stingy age where scientists struggle to get grants for space research, the wealth that May earned from his rock music career comes in handy. In 2013, he told Rolling Stone he was funding a project to increase surveillance of comets and asteroids that might fly near Earth, because he was concerned about the risk of a catastrophic collision. “It's more than possible, and we don't have enough scouts out there looking for them,” he said.

NOW THAT'S COOL According to a 2010 NPR Interview, May used his physicist's knowledge of sound waves to enhance Queen's famously anthemic "We Will Rock You"; he overlaid multiple recordings of stomping and clapping with a slight delay to create the illusion of echoes from a huge crowd. 

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