That’s Dr. May, To You

Brian May Astro Physics

Photo by Henry Throop/NASA/Johns Hopkins University APL

That’s Dr. Brian May, To You
| published July 23, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts Thursday Review contributor

Brian May is best known as one of the world’s premier rock guitarists. His unique guitar hooks and chord expressions are one of the signature sounds of the group Queen, which was once one of the biggest rock and roll acts in the world, and a band whose distinctive sound occupied a niche at the intersections of hard rock, glam rock, heavy metal, and even opera. Queen’s legacy is hard to avoid: 18 number one albums, 18 number one singles, and thousands of sold-out shows over four decades of performances. All told, Queen has sold more than 220 million records, putting them on a supergroup par with The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, U2, Bon Jovi, and The Eagles.

And May, writer of such songs as "We Will Rock You" and "Hammer to Fall," is often considered in the music press to be one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. A poll of Guitar World readers in 2012 ranked him number two; Planet Rock ranks him number seven; Rolling Stone ranks him in the top 25. Not bad.

But a little known fact about Brian May is that he also holds a doctorate in—are you ready for this?—astrophysics. May first studied physics at Imperial College as far back as the period from 1970 to 1974, taking classes part of the time, and working with the band during his remaining time. May studied reflected light theory, and studied the effects of reflected light from interplanetary dust. May also spent time with his studies at observatories, including the Teide Telescope & Observatory on Tenerife.

But as the group Queen moved from obscurity to super stardom, bringing with it enormous financial success, May postponed his advanced studies and gave most of his time to the band. May still took time in 1974, however, to complete his role in authoring two advanced papers, one entitled Mgl Emission in the Night Sky Spectrum. Not the same light reading found in the latest edition of Creem or Rolling Stone.

But May did complete his doctoral studies, submitted his thesis in 2007, and revisited the issues of zodiacal dust in the solar system. His thesis was approved 37 years after he had begun working on it. May is the co-author, along with Sir Patrick Moore and Dr. Chris Lintott, or the book Bang! The Complete History of the Universe, published in 2006. May is also the co-author of the book The Cosmic Tourist, published in 2012. May’s work in astrophysics is so well respected that he even has an asteroid named after him: 52665, which was officially renamed 52665brianmay in June of 2008.

May has taken up a sort of honorary membership in the team of scientists now studying Pluto, and with those responsible for guiding the spaceship New Horizons to its remarkable goal of travelling some three billion miles on a decade-long journey of discovery. New Horizons’ recent close-up fly-by of Pluto has given scientists the most detailed look at the distant dwarf planet and its moons, and the data which will flow back to Earth from Pluto may yet go a long way to explain some of the mysteries of our Solar System and its formation.

May, seen in the photo above, recently joined the team at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland for a series of discussions, and a firsthand look at the team’s history-making work. For those unfamiliar with his face, May is the tall fellow in the black jacket with the sleeves pulled up to his elbows.

Related Thursday Review articles:

New Horizons Phones Home; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; July 16, 2015.

A Close-Up Look at Distant Pluto; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; July 15, 2015.