Starting up a band means hard work for an insecure future. An aspiring musician will never know whether their band is going to break through; it might never get beyond small gigs in cafés. It is an unpredictable road to take, which is why guitarist Brian May pursued a PhD degree in astrophysics alongside starting up this band called Queen.
Needless to say, after their big breakthrough May had to abandon his research in 1974. In fact, he never planned to finish his PhD research, even after Queen disbanded after the demise of Freddie Mercury. However, after appearing on the famous astronomy TV show The Sky At Night and writing a popular astronomy book, he re-registered for his PhD in 2006, submitting his thesis in 2007.
Publishing house Springer published May’s thesis as a monograph, and it was widely purchased, probably by diehard fans. A strange fan purchase indeed: A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud is a highly specialised, technical work, as nearly all PhD theses are. It is quite likely that many a Queen fan owns a copy of the book that has been left very much unread. Springer can hardly be blamed for misleading any eager readers: though their website advertises the monograph as having been “written by Brian May, guitarist of the legendary rock band, Queen”, the blurb also emphasises that “this book is Brian’s thesis, and as such presents the results of his research for astronomers.”
Yet Queen fans and amateur stargazers alike are in luck: as mentioned above, before submitting his PhD thesis May also published an amazing popular science book. Co-authored with the late Sir Patrick Moore and Oxford’s own Chris Lintott of Zooniverse fame, Bang! The Complete History of the Universe is eye-catching, accessible, and immensely educational.
The book is aimed at the curious child that lives inside every adult. Though the many illustrations in the book are of course included in the first instance for their immediate appeal to the reader, all illustrations are given a full explanation and justification for their inclusion in the book: the authors try to argue that an awesome picture of a star is never just an awesome picture. In the one instance where an image is clearly chosen only for its visual attractiveness – the explosion on the cover – May, Moore and Lintott immediately posit a disclaimer: “Our explosion on the cover is for fun only. There is no suggestion that any part of the Big Bang ever looked like this”.
In the case of multiple authors, it is always unclear to what extent the contribution of an individual author was, so a discussion of May’s personal writing style, for instance, would be quite impossible here. Incidentally, the colophon lists only Patrick Moore as the copyright holder for the text. One particularly interesting contribution from May, however, comes in the form of a photograph: May, having built a contraption made from wire coat hangers, is looking at the transition of Venus in 2008. Showing a superstar being a ‘real’ astronomer with a DIY device: a more effective campaign to become an amateur astronomer would be difficult to come up with indeed.
For the best reading experience, consult the third edition of the book (2009), not the fourth (2012). The third edition, updated with the quite impressive amount of knowledge gained in the three years since the book was first published, is huge in size, colourful, with glossy pages, and filled with pictures. Roughly half of the two hundred pages consist of very prettily coloured-in Hubble Telescope images, diagrams, and illustrations. All the more is the pity that the fourth edition is cheaply made: it is a mere pocket book with only a quarter of the original number of images, and many explanatory paragraphs have been removed entirely.
Brian May turns out to be a great science popularizer, as well as an amazing musician. In fact, we might be hearing a lot more from him in the science field in the coming years. It’s almost frustrating, isn’t it, when some people are really great at multiple things?
For more information about Brian May, please visit his website.