Brian May’s sublime guitar playing was the soundtrack to most of my childhood (thanks, Dad), but his talents transcend the musical sphere. He’s also a photographer and perhaps most surprisingly an astrophysicist. It’s for this very reason that I found myself listening to him speak on a panel alongside British astronaut Helen Sharman – the first British astronaut to visit the Mir space station – about the upcoming fifth edition of Starmus, an innovation and arts festival he’s involved with, due to be held in Bern (Switzerland) in 2019.
Best known as Queen’s lead guitarist, May has toured the world alongside the seminal rock band’s legendary lead vocalist Freddie Mercury, drummer Roger Taylor and bass guitarist John Deacon – but he’s also collaborated with NASA and co-founded an asteroid awareness campaign. His lifelong interest in science and tech is also the reason why he set up the London Stereoscopic Company.
May studied physics and mathematics at London’s prestigious Imperial College, graduating with a BSc degree and ARCs in physics. From 1970 to 1974, he embarked on a PHD degree at the same institution – studying reflected light from interplanetary dust and the velocity of dust in the plane of the Solar System. Despite temporarily abandoning his doctoral studies when Queen began to enjoy international success in the mid-1970s, May re-registered for his PhD at Imperial and submitted his thesis in the Summer of 2007.
His love affair with maths and physics, he told me, began at school. “I found out I was good at both. My dad was a scientist and an engineer and he introduced me to all things technical and scientific.”
“Funnily enough, though, I was told I was no good at music by my music teacher,” May giggled.
Arts vs Science
May, whose compositions for Queen include rock classics ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘I Want It All’, and ‘The Show Must Go On”, pinpoints his interest in science to his early childhood, explaining he developed “somewhat of an obsession” with Patrick Moore’s ‘The Sky at Night’, a BBC astronomy programme.
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“I became fascinated with the sky and the stars and I begged to be allowed to stay up and watch the programme. It inspired me to want to be an astronomer.”
Music may have initially deterred May from a scientific career, but he’s adamant that it’s possible – and necessary – to love both science and the arts.
“Something bad has happened in the sense that arts and science have been separated and it’s very unhealthy,” he said.
“It was the previous generation who did this, though, because this was not the case during Victorian times,” May noted, explaining how during that time, Britain was a nation characterised by multidisciplinary appreciation.
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“This was perverted somehow and when my generation went to school we were told we couldn’t mix the two. You could either be an artist or a scientist.”
Human interference and ethics
May is on a mission to bring the two disciplines closer together, but his willingness to do so hasn’t distracted him from the potential perils of innovation.
“Genetic engineering scares me the most,” said the musician, who is also a fervent supporter of animal rights and an outspoken vegetarian.
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“It scares me in animals as well humans because it’s such a terrible thing to see humans designing a creature to suit themselves. We’re playing God without any of the overview we ought to have.
“It’s happening now and it’s been happening in a different way, in the way we farm animals, for a century or more. These animals are not natural. We’re breeding animals who can’t walk, who can’t enjoy life in the sun purely because it’s going to make us money. To me, this is a perversion and it’s something we ought to be ashamed of,” May continued.
He believes change needs to happen from the top-down and urges politicians to take greater responsibility in driving the conversation around ethics.
“I’d love to see empathy in politics. It’s almost non-existent in this country, well, in most countries, actually.
“I think it’s a terrible shame. We have the wrong kind of people directing policy. I would like to see these issues addressed at all levels,” he added.
His comments come at at time of significant political upheaval in the UK as Theresa May’s government seeks to negotiate the terms of the nation’s impending departure from the EU.
Generally speaking, it’s safe to say that much of the UK’s scientific and technology community has opposed Brexit, citing concerns around potential loss of talent and reduced access to funding.
When asked about the potential effects of Brexit on science and technological innovation, May was quick to add that he is far more concerned about the way in which animals are being treated.
“My view is that our parent’s generation worked incredibly hard to bring us together and to create a community in Europe, and just because we had a few problems, this doesn’t mean that work should all be thrown away.”
As politics seemingly heads in the direction of insularity, I probed May on his thoughts about the sheer vastness of the universe and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
“We just don’t know,” he said, adding that he continues to be fascinated by the subject and that scientific discovery needs to continue.
The show must, quite simply, go on.