Biography of Brian May, Rock Star and Astronomer

Dr. Brian May
Dr. Brian May, CBE, FRAS, at a press conference immediately after the New Horizons flyby of Pluto. Dr. May was a member of the science team on that mission.

NASA/Joel Kowsky

In the late 1960s, Brian Harold May was an eager student in physics, studying to become an astronomer. He also happened to be a gigging musician. In 1968, he came to musical attention with the band Smile, and later went on to headline tours as part of the band Queen. In 1974, he put his studies aside to perform and tour with Queen. 

With the death in 1991 of lead singer Freddie Mercury, Brian May embarked on a solo career as a musician even while performing with Queen and other musicians. Yet, as he has often noted, his past as a scientist never strayed far from his mind. Eventually, Brian May went back to school to finish his work. In 2008, he was granted his Ph.D., and since then has gone on to do more work in planetary science. 

Fast Facts: Brian May

  • Known For: His astrophysics research on dust in the solar system as well as his role in the band Queen
  • Born: July 19, 1947 in Hampstead, England
  • Parents: Fred and Ruth May
  • Education: Hampton Grammar School; Imperial College London, B.S. in 1968 with honors; Imperial College London, Ph.D. in 2008
  • Key Accomplishments: Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2005 as a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire

Early Years and Music Career

Brian Harold May was born in Hampton, Middlesex, England on July 19, 1947. His father, Harold May, worked for the Ministry of Aviation. His mother Ruth, was of Scottish descent. May attended schools in the area, and went on to study physics and mathematics at Imperial College, London. He graduated in 1968 and began studies toward his Ph.D. that year.

He was first married to Christine Mullen in 1974 and they had three children. In 1986, he met actress Anita Dobson and subsequently divorced his first wife so they could marry. Dobson has been with May throughout his musical career with Queen as well as his solo musical performances. Brian May went on to become a world-famous musical performer both with his band, Queen, as well as a noted solo performer. 

Career in Astrophysics

As a graduate student, May had been interested in studying dust particles in the solar system and had published two research papers. Eager to resume that work, he enrolled as a graduate student again in 2006. He finished his studies and got himself back up to speed on studies of dust particles during the years he'd been away touring as a musician.

His thesis work, titled A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud was submitted in 2007, 37 years after he started the research. He used techniques of absorption spectroscopy and Doppler spectroscopy to study the light scattered by dust particles in the solar system. He did his work at Teide Observatory in the Canary Islands. After review by his advisors and a thesis committee, Brian May's thesis was accepted. He was awarded his doctorate on May 14, 2008. 

May went on to become a visiting researcher at Imperial College, where he continues to do work. He has also been involved the New Horizons mission to the planet Pluto as a science team collaborator due to his solar system work. He acted as chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University from 2008-2013 and has appeared numerous times on such programs as BBC's "Sky at Night" show. He wrote books with the late astronomer Sir Patrick Moore and writer Chris Lintott.

Activism and Additional Interests

Thanks to his work with the late Sir Moore, May participated in the efforts to save Moore's estate and effects. He is also an avid supporter of animal rights and animal welfare. He continues to raise funds and awareness of issues involving wildlife in the UK and elsewhere. May has contributed his musical talents to spread the word about issues involving hunting and culling of animals in his home country. 

Quite apart from his activities in astronomy, music, and animal rights, Brian May is also a collector of Victorian stereography. He has written a book about T.R. Williams, the English stereographer. This hobby started when May was still in graduate school in the 1970s and has given him a massive collection of stereo pair images. He has also patented a viewer called the "Owl Viewer," which can be used to examine the stereographic scenes in his latest book. 

Accomplishments

In addition to his immense success with the band Queen, Brian May has achieved notable success in the field of astrophysics. Asteroid 52665 Brianmay was named after him, as was a species of damselfly (heteragron brianmayi). In 2005, he was given a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for his achievements in music. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Sources

  • “BRIAN MAY BIOGRAPHY.” BRIANMAY.COM || THE OFFICIAL BRIAN MAY WEBSITE, brianmay.com/brian/biog.html.
  • “Secret Science Nerds: Queen's Lead Guitarist Brian May Is an Astrophysicist.” Nerdist, 22 Aug. 2016, nerdist.com/secret-science-nerds-queens-lead-guitarist-brian-may-is-an-astrophysicist/.
  • Talbert, Tricia. “Rock Star/Astrophysicist Dr. Brian May Backstage With New Horizons.” NASA, NASA, 21 July 2015, www.nasa.gov/feature/rock-starastrophysicist-dr-brian-may-goes-backstage-with-new-horizons.