Until a few years ago the name Brian May was not one that evoked thoughts of an astronomer gazing at the night sky. After Queen launched into superstardom status, with May as lead guitarist, the world of telescopes was put on the back burner as hit after hit topped the charts. Unbeknown to many, however, was May’s love of astronomy that began even before he became one of the most famous guitarists in the world.
Sitting down with May at the launch of his new book, The Cosmic Tourist, co-authored with The Sky At Night presenters Sir Patrick Moore and Dr Chris Lintott, May revealed what first got him interested in astrophysics and astronomy: “The answer is Patrick, completely Patrick. Single-handedly he inspired a whole generation, actually quite a few generations, that they can look up and outwards and start to wonder about the sky at night. That was me, I was entranced from about the age of eight or nine, and it never left me.”
May’s admiration of Sir Patrick was apparent from the word go: “I got one of [Sir Patrick’s] books from the school library and read it from cover to cover many times, and I discovered I could actually see the man on TV. So I implored my parents to let me stay up and watch The Sky At Night and I was glued, absolutely glued to it, and have been ever since.”
While Sir Patrick has been a major influence in May’s life, he cites others as being a further cause of his early love for astronomy even before his Queen days, and indeed it was that motivation that led him into a degree in physics and maths at Imperial College, London, in the late Sixties: “The reason I did my physics degree at Imperial College was because I had astronomy in mind,” said May. It was a radio astronomer by the name of John Shakeshaft that provided further inspiration for May after giving a lecture at his school, where “I collared him and said I wanted to be an astronomer, asked him how I’d do it, and he said to do physics at university.”
“I implored my parents to let me stay up and watch The Sky At Night. I was glued to it”
After passing his Bachelor’s degree, May progressed on to “doing a postgraduate course for a PhD and a project in the infrared astronomy department, although what I did was actually optical Doppler shift astronomy. What I was doing was looking at dust in the Solar System and the dynamics of it.” It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. “Somewhere along the line I got a little distracted with music!” joked May. Thirty years is quite a distraction, but understandably May said he “wasn’t sad” at dropping his PhD to join Queen. On whether he maintained his interest in astronomy during his Queen days, May told us that “yes, I really did” but it was his thesis that provided the incentive to leave the PhD behind.
“To be honest I came to a very sticky point in my thesis. I’d done three years of study and I’d written most of it up, and I’d also done an extra year supporting myself by teaching maths in a comprehensive school. So I did four years on the whole, I’d written it all up, done all the pictures and diagrams and index. Then my supervisor said it was really good but why don’t I go back and do a little bit more here and there. To cut a long story short I just said I couldn’t do it. I never got as far as submitting it to the authorities.”
From there, May “put it to one side, thinking maybe one day” he’d return to it, but it wasn’t until 30 years later that he unearthed his thesis “in about three different trunks in my loft” and came back to it. “It was Patrick again,” May said. “I came to know Patrick not through astronomy but through a radio programme, and in this radio programme I did some music for it and became very good friends with Patrick. From time to time he’d ask me what happened to my PhD, and why don’t I go and finish it off. I said to Patrick how could I possibly do that now, it’s got too far away! And he said, ‘no it hasn’t, you could do it, why don’t you do it?’”
While May started to consider going back to finish what he’d started 30 years ago, he needed one last push to be tempted back into the world of academia after spending so long living as a rock star. “I started talking about it in the press because people started asking me for some reason,” said May. “One of the articles was read by the head of astrophysics at the Imperial College at the time, Professor Rowan-Robinson, and he wrote me an email that was probably one of the biggest shocks of my life! It said, ‘I’ve read the article [in the media], if you are serious about finishing off your PhD in astronomy I will be your supervisor. Come back to Imperial College and we will finish off your PhD.’”
It was a difficult decision for May, but in the end he said “it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. But I had to throw up my life. I just ditched everything for a year, and I pretty much gave up three times because it was so difficult to pick up the threads [of my old thesis].” We sensed, however, that despite all the hardship May was glad to go back and finish what he had started. “It was thrilling when I finally got that thing done,” May admitted. “I cannot tell you what that feels like when you’ve been through all that stuff.
The examiners were [bad] though, they were so hard on me, I don’t know if they wanted to make an example of me! I had a real tough time with my external examiners but when I eventually did the corrections and took it back and they said okay, you can have your PhD, I was so thrilled because it was like fulfilling a circle that I’d always wanted to do.”