Queen’s Brian May: Star Guitarist and Stargazing Astrophysicist

Updated on December 9, 2018
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Rainbeaux is a journalist who's written about music for 30 years. She discovered the magic of Queen -- and Freddie Mercury -- at age 15.

Boy wonder -- Brian May at age 15 (Photo: Harold May/Brian May Archive)
Boy wonder -- Brian May at age 15 (Photo: Harold May/Brian May Archive)

A Stargazing Rock Star is Born

The world was blessed with future virtuoso guitarist, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Brian Harold May, on July 19, 1947 in Hampton, England. Already a budding genius in grammar school, Brian breezed through advanced mathematics, applied mathematics, and physics.

Fast forward to 1971, when Brian was on the fast track to earning a doctorate in mathematics and physics at London's Imperial College. His thesis delved into a phenomenon called Zodiacal light, which is light reflected off of solar system dust that was created 4.6 billion years ago. (Zodiacal light produces cone-shaped illumination that’s visible before sunrise and after sunset.) Brian conducted his initial thesis research at Observatorio del Teide in Tenerife, the largest of the seven Canary Islands.


A young Brian May working on his thesis at Tenerife Observatory, before he would have to put his studies on hold.
A young Brian May working on his thesis at Tenerife Observatory, before he would have to put his studies on hold.

However, when Queen began its astonishingly meteoric rise, Brian had to put his studies on hold. Those studies would idle for more than three decades.

Brian doing that crazy little thing called rocking out with Queen. (Photo: Carl Lender)
Brian doing that crazy little thing called rocking out with Queen. (Photo: Carl Lender)

What Made Brian Fall in Love With Astrophysics?

When the “BBC School News Report” asked Brian what had kindled his interest in astrophysics, he said, “There was a lot going on when I was growing up; for the first time a man stood on the moon…I think it’s the greatest mystery, and I can’t fail to be enchanted about finding things out about the solar system, the galaxy, the whole universe.”

Love at first sight. (Photo: Greg-Rakozy)
Love at first sight. (Photo: Greg-Rakozy)

Brian Completes His PhD -- 33 Years Later

When Brian surfaced from his hiatus and re-registered for his PhD in 2006, he had a daunting task ahead of him. Not only did he have to revisit the work he'd begun years ago, but he had to pore over 33 years of previous scientific studies that others had conducted related to his subject matter. This included fresh discoveries that NASA had made during that extensive period.

Luckily, Brian was able to submit his innovative 48,000-word thesis only a year later and have it released as his book, “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.” The publication now has mass market distribution.

In the book’s introduction, Brian explains, “In studies of the origin of our Solar System...there are benefits in knowing the composition and motions of the interplanetary dust. The present parameters of this cloud of material can give indications as to how our planetary system was formed, and how the Sun’s environment is evolving at present.”

Zodiacal light (Photo: Brian May)
Zodiacal light (Photo: Brian May)

The poetry that Brian crafts with his lyrics is also poignantly reflected in a Biblical passage he has interwoven with the thesis’ scientific findings: “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.” -- Psalms 39, vv. 9-10. According to Brian, this passage raises the question of whether there was “an awareness of Zodiacal light in Old Testament times.”

He also quotes a passage from iconic Persian astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat” (circa 1120). This passage may indicate that Khayyam had observed this phenomenon: “Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night/Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight.”

Omar Khayyam, author of the “Rubaiyat”
Omar Khayyam, author of the “Rubaiyat”

Brian May Becomes DR. Brian May

At the culmination of all of this meticulous research, Brian finally received his doctorate in 2007. Not only that, but he was designated Visiting Researcher at the Imperial College, where he continues his astronomy research and participates in the Imperial Astrophysics Group.

Dr. Brian May visits Paranal Observatory in Chile
Dr. Brian May visits Paranal Observatory in Chile
Dr. Brian May makes a point during a press conference at the Starmus Festival, which has featured astronauts, cosmonauts, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and other scientific luminaries (Photo: Starmus/Royal Society)
Dr. Brian May makes a point during a press conference at the Starmus Festival, which has featured astronauts, cosmonauts, Nobel Peace Prize winners, and other scientific luminaries (Photo: Starmus/Royal Society)

Astrophysicist Dr. Garik Israelian, who, along with Brian, co-authored the book, “Starmus: 50 Years of Man in Space,” quipped, “I have no doubt that Brian May would have had a brilliant career in science had he completed his PhD in 1971. Nevertheless, as a fan of Queen, I am glad that he left science temporarily.”

Brian May Joins Forces with NASA

In 2015, Brian assisted a distinguished group of NASA scientists who were studying the New Horizons space probe. The probe’s mission was a flyby to collect data about Pluto, the smallest planet in our solar system (also known as dwarf planet). To put Pluto’s tiny size into perspective, Jupiter, our solar system’s largest planet, has a diameter of 86,882 miles. Pluto only measures 1,491 miles.

New Horizons Space Probe (Image: NASA)
New Horizons Space Probe (Image: NASA)

Brian contributed to this mission by organizing and analyzing images and data collected by New Horizons. The first full-planet picture was downloaded from the probe -- and Brian was overjoyed to be there for this landmark event. He then created a pioneering, high-resolution 3-D image of the dwarf planet, via an instrument called a stereoscope.

The stereoscope merged two photos to create one 3-D picture. On his blog, Brian ecstatically wrote: “I was able to assemble the two images to make the most satisfying stereo view I can ever remember making.”

Brian May's stereo image of Pluto.
Brian May's stereo image of Pluto.

Brian's Other Adventures in Stereo Imaging

The talented Mr. May also deftly creates sophisticated stereo images outside of the lab. In his book, “Queen in 3-D,” he has compiled over 300 of his own stereoscopic behind-the-scenes photos of Queen and its members. These shots -- and any other images -- can be enjoyed with a device Brian invented called the OWL VR smartphone viewer.

The VR viewer is the upgrade of May’s 2009 OWL Stereo Viewer. It’s also a conduit for Brian’s obsession with three-dimensional Victorian photographs called stereographs. Brian has been amassing these photos for 40 years; his collection is brimming with more than 100,000 Victorian images.

If one is good, three is better! (Photo: Paul Harmer)
If one is good, three is better! (Photo: Paul Harmer)

Brian Has the Write Stuff!

Brian has written several other books about 3-D imagery: “Moon Mission 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space Race” (co-authored by David Eicher), “George Washington Wilson: Artist and Photographer” (co-authored by Queen drummer, Roger Taylor), “A Village Lost and Found,” (co-authored by Elena Vidal), “Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell” (co-authored by Denis Pellerin), “The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery: Stereoscopy Versus Paintings in the Victorian Era” (co-written by Denis Pellerin), and “Crinoline: Fashion’s Most Magnificent Disaster” (co-written by Denis Pellerin).

Brian and co-author David Eicher with their book, "Moon Mission 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space Race.”
Brian and co-author David Eicher with their book, "Moon Mission 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space Race.”
Brian May and Queen drummer, Roger Taylor, co-authors of the book, “George Washington Wilson: Artist and Photographer”
Brian May and Queen drummer, Roger Taylor, co-authors of the book, “George Washington Wilson: Artist and Photographer”

An Asteroid is Born

But this Renaissance man’s astral accomplishments don’t stop there. In 2008, Brian’s name was literally inscribed in the heavens: Asteroid 52665 Brianmay was named as homage to his epic contributions to studies of outer space. And in 2014, Brian, along with several space research luminaries -- including Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart -- founded Asteroid Day, to raise awareness about asteroids and how to protect the planet from them.

Don't look now, but....
Don't look now, but....
Asteroid 52665 Brianmay
Asteroid 52665 Brianmay

Brian May? Yes....He Did!!

From writing down-and-dirty songs about “Fat Bottomed Girls,” to lofty scientific papers about cosmic dust, Brian fluidly and innovatively toggles between the two. Onstage, at the mixing board -- or in the observatory -- Brian May is out of this world!

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