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A survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud

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Queen's Guitarist Publishes Astrophysics Thesis

Queen's Guitarist Publishes Astrophysics Thesis

The founder of the legendary rock band Queen has completedhis doctoral thesis in astrophysics after taking a 30-year break to play someguitar.

Brian May's thesis examines the mysterious phenomenon knownas Zodiacal light, a misty diffuse cone of light that appears in the westernsky after sunset and in the eastern sky before sunrise. Casual observers, ifthey live under very dark rural skies, can best see the light two to threehours before sunrise as they look east, and many people have been fooled intoseeing it as the first sign of morning twilight. A Persian astronomer who livedaround the 12th century referred to it as "false dawn" in a poem.

Astronomers now know that Zodiacal light represents reflectedsunlight shining on scattered space debris clustered most densely near thesun . The millions of particles range in size from tiny asteroids tomicroscopic dust grains, and extend outward beyond the orbit of Mars.

May's work focuses on an instrument that recorded 250 scansof morning and evening Zodiacal light between 1971 and 1972. The Fabry-PerotSpectrometer is located at the Observatorio del Teide at Izana in Tenerife, thelargest of the Canary Islands.

The completed thesis appears as the book "A Survey ofRadial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud" (Springer and CanopusPublishing Ltd., 2008).

"I have thoroughly enjoyed my years playing guitar andrecording music with Queen, but it's extremely gratifying to see thepublication of my thesis," May said. "I've been fascinated withastronomy for years, and I was happy to finally complete my Ph.D. last year andrecord my studies of the Zodiacal Light in this book."

May officially received hisdoctorate on Aug. 24, 2007, from the Imperial College in London. He alsogained the appointmentof chancellor for Liverpool John Moores University in November of thatyear, showing that he's not just any guitar hero.

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July 31, 2008

Brian May, guitarist for rock band Queen, completes Ph.D. thesis following 30-year hiatus

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Queen Guitarist Brian May Is Also an Astrophysicist: Read His PhD Thesis Online

in Astronomy , Music , Physics | July 1st, 2019 6 Comments

brian may thesis

Photo by ESO/G. Huedepohl, via Wikimedia Commons

Queen couldn’t possibly have been Queen without Freddie Mercury, nor could it have been Queen without Brian May. Thanks not least to the recent biopic,  Bohemian Rhapsody , the band’s already larger-than-life lead singer has become even larger still. But its guitarist, despite the film’s surface treatment of his character, is in his own way an equally implausible figure. Not only did he show musical promise early, forming his first group while still at school, he also got his A Levels in physics, mathematics, and applied mathematics, going on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Physics with honors at Imperial College London.

Naturally, May then went for his PhD, continuing at Imperial College where he studied the velocity of, and light reflected by, interplanetary dust in the Solar System. He began the program in 1970, but “in 1974, when Queen was but a princess in its infancy, May chose to abandon his doctorate studies to focus on the band in their quest to conquer the world.” So wrote The Telegraph ‘s Felix Lowe in 2007, the year the by-then 60-year-old (and long world-famous) rocker finally handed in his thesis. “The 48,000-word tome, Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud , which sounds suspiciously like a Spinal Tap LP, was stored in the loft of his home in Surrey.” You can read it online here .

According to its abstract, May’s thesis “documents the building of a pressure-scanned Fabry-Perot Spectrometer, equipped with a photomultiplier and pulse-counting electronics, and its deployment at the Observatorio del Teide at Izaña in Tenerife, at an altitude of 7,700 feet (2567 m), for the purpose of recording high-resolution spectra of the Zodiacal Light.” describes the Zodiacial Light as “a misty diffuse cone of light that appears in the western sky after sunset and in the eastern sky before sunrise,” one that has long tricked casual observers into “seeing it as the first sign of morning twilight.” Astronomers now recognize it as “reflected sunlight shining on scattered space debris clustered most densely near the sun.”

In his abstract, May also notes the unusually long period of study as 1970-2007, made possible in part by the fact that little other research had been done in this particular subject area during Queen’s reign on the charts and thereafter. Still, he had catching up to do, including observational work in Tenerife (as much of a hardship posting as that isn’t). Since being awarded his doctorate, May’s scientific activities have continued, as have his musical ones and other pursuits besides, such as animal-rights activism and stereography. (Sometimes these intersect: the 2017 photobook Queen in 3-D , for example, uses a VR viewing device of May’s own design.) The next time you meet a youngster dithering over whether to go into astrophysics or found one of the most successful rock bands of all time, point them to May’s example and let them know doing both isn’t without precedent.

Related Content:

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Based in Seoul,  Colin Marshall  writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book  The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles  and the video series  The City in Cinema . Follow him on Twitter at  @colinmarshall , on  Facebook , or on  Instagram .

by Colin Marshall | Permalink | Comments (6) |

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“Woody Paul” Christman aka “King of the Cowboy Fiddlers” from the cowboy band “Riders in the Sky” (they did the music for the movie Toy Story) has a PhD in Plasma Physics from MIT. Yes, the King of Cowboy Fiddlers is a Rocket Scientist!!!

Lovely to see well known people with strong left brain as well as right brain mental activity! Wow!

Brian May is so genius!! Talented, kind, sweet tge reason why he deserved all of this. Long live legend!! We queenies are so proud of you! :)

My son, Christopher, is an aerospace engineer (and a drummer in his band!) He had to explain to me what astrophysics is! I adore Queen and hope my dream to meet you, Brian, and Roger comes true when you are in Washington DC this month! It would be such a dream come true. (I have a little hedge hog present for you.) Music and space will always go together in our family and yours! May God bless your family, your kindness and compassion. Especially today, on our planet, we need more Brian Mays! Hope, hope, hope to shake your hand at the stage door. Love, Ann (Miss Freddie so much.)

Got my A-levels in physics, pure math, and applied math in Hertfordshire. Went on to get my BSc and ARCS in physics at Imperial College in 1970. Very much inspired along the way by Sir Patrick Moore. Didn’t know how much I had in common with Sir Brian May. Wish I had met him when we were there. Great memories.

The two fields aren’t as disparate as you might think. Music, at its core, is really just very beautiful math.

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  • © 2007

A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud

  • Brian Harold May 0

Astrophysics Group Department of Physics, Imperial College, London, UK

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Written by Brian May, guitarist of the legendary rock band, Queen

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Table of contents (5 chapters)

Front matter, introduction.

Brian Harold May

Preparations and experimental details 1971–1974

Reduction of the data, interpretation of results in terms of physical models, current developments and future plans, back matter.

  • Brian May PhD
  • Brian May thesis
  • Brian May's research
  • El Teide observations
  • Imperial College London
  • Solar System
  • Zodiacal Dust Cloud
  • dust in solar system
  • musician scientist
  • zodiacal light book
  • zodiacal light explained

Book Title : A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud

Authors : Brian Harold May


Publisher : Springer New York, NY

eBook Packages : Physics and Astronomy , Physics and Astronomy (R0)

Copyright Information : Springer-Verlag New York 2007

Hardcover ISBN : 978-0-387-77705-4 Published: 05 August 2008

eBook ISBN : 978-0-387-77706-1 Published: 05 August 2008

Edition Number : 1

Number of Pages : XXII, 215

Number of Illustrations : 25 b/w illustrations, 54 illustrations in colour

Additional Information : Jointly published with Canopus Publishing Ltd, Bristol, UK

Topics : Astronomy, Observations and Techniques , Popular Science in Astronomy , Planetology

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Astronomical Returns

The Rock Star's Dusty Astronomy Thesis

brian may thesis

"Astronomy's much more fun when you're not an astronomer "  - Brian May

I wholeheartedly agree, that's why I studied finance


I'm only 25 years old, so undoubtedly there's a ton of great music from the last century that I wasn't around for and won't ever fully appreciate. But of all the classic rock bands, I'd definitely say Queen is my favorite: Bohemian Rhapsody is still a kick-ass karaoke song, 46 years after its original release. Plus, Queen's lead guitarist Brian May happens to also hold a Ph.D. in astrophysics, which is all the more reason for me to like them! Just recently, I watched the Bohemian Rhapsody movie about Freddie Mercury and Queen, and it dawned on me I actually didn't know what exactly May wrote his thesis on, so I thought it'd be fun to try jump into it and provide a synopsis

As an undergraduate, May had studied math and physics at Imperial College London and remained there from 1970 to 1974 to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics, but he decided to put his Ph.D. on hold after Queen's meteoric rise to fame. What he was studying was the zodiacal light, a faint glow visible in the night sky that can be seen just after twilight in the spring or just before dawn in the fall. This phenomenon has been observed and recorded for centuries; the Islamic prophet Muhammad referred to it as the "false dawn" and described how to distinguish it to avoid mistiming the 5 daily prayers in Muslim tradition. In modern times, we know this glow is caused by sunlight being scattered by the enormous, diffuse cloud of interplanetary dust that extends far beyond Earth's orbit. Researchers had analyzed the spectroscopy of the zodiacal light and realized that it had the exact same absorption spectrum as the sun, meaning it must be caused by reflections off solid objects, rather than a gas which would alter the sunlight's observed spectrum. Yet even after the Pioneer 10 spacecraft confirmed this in 1972, there remained another question: where did all this dust come from in the first place? 

That's where May comes in - by 2006, there still hasn't been much research done on the nature of the interplanetary dust cloud, so May picks up his dusty, unfinished thesis (pun intended!) from over 30 years ago and reregisters for his Ph.D. His paper, titled "A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud", depicted the overall motions of this dust cloud relative to Earth's orbit by examining the tiny redshifts/blueshifts in the cloud's absorption spectrum over repeated observations. Now unlike detecting redshift in a single star or galaxy rapidly expanding away from us, May's tasks was not as simple as examining the absorption spectrum from a single grain of dust: every observation is a sample of a bazillion particles, all moving haphazardly throughout the solar system. So what May was measuring was a change in the statistical distribution of the spectral lines from the dust cloud, and to do this he needed a device called a Fabry-Perot Interferometer

Similar to how a microscope allows a scientist to closely examine a small sample, a Fabry-Perot Interferometer allows an astronomer to zoom in on an extremely precise wavelength range of the electromagnetic spectrum for closer study. It lets light inside the device where it is partially reflected and partially transmitted between two closely spaced mirrors, then focused back onto a screen to create an interference pattern. Armed with his interferometer and a coelostat (basically a motorized mirror that tracks a fixed portion of the sky over time as it rotates overhead), May spent a bunch of time at Teide Observatory in Tenerife, Spain, making repeated observations of the zodiacal light to collect data on their absorption spectra. After crunching the numbers, he found the patterns were consistent with a flat interplanetary dust cloud that orbited the sun in the same direction as the Earth. This is a crucial finding because it suggests the dust cloud is generated by the asteroid belt, which rotates in the same direction as the rest of the solar system, as opposed to comet tails (which come into the solar system equally in prograde and retrograde orbits) or interstellar dust (which would come in at an angle completely different from the solar system)

Two other points worth noting: first, May's conclusion that the zodiacal dust cloud originates from the asteroid belt is supported by observations made by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) in 1983, which revealed that the dust cloud had an internal structure of concentric disks, many of which lined up with known asteroid clusters. And second, why did astronomers believe that the zodiacal dust cloud had to "originate" from some source in the first place? Couldn't it have just been leftovers from the formation of the solar system? The reason is that if it weren't being constantly replenished, such a diffuse cloud of tiny particles would be washed out of the solar system within a few hundred thousand to a few million years by two forces: 1) solar wind would easily push the dust cloud off into interstellar space, and 2) another phenomenon known as Poynting-Robertson drag, whereby solar radiation reduces the angular momentum of an orbiting dust particle, causing it to fall into the sun. So the fact there is a dust cloud within the vicinity of the Earth, billions of years after the formation of the solar system, means it had to be produced relatively recently

There's a cool Wikipedia page titled "List of Celebrities With Advanced Degrees", and I saw that Dexter Holland, the lead singer for the band The Offspring (another band I like) has a Ph.D. in molecular biology, which is pretty neat! So, if Brian May can get his Ph.D. in astrophysics at the age of 60, then that means I have 35 more years to supplement my bachelors in finance with a degree in aerospace engineering!  

To learn more about his thesis on the zodiacal dust cloud, check out Scott Manley's fantastic video here

brian may thesis

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  1. Brian May, PhD

    brian may thesis

  2. Brian May feels "grateful to be alive" after his stomach exploded

    brian may thesis

  3. Nandra hi-res stock photography and images

    brian may thesis

  4. Brian may phd thesis writing

    brian may thesis

  5. Brian may phd thesis proposal

    brian may thesis

  6. Brian May submits thesis after 30 years

    brian may thesis


  1. Don't Mess With Brian May, Rick Beato Finds Out The Hard Way

  2. Thesis Writing: Outlining Part III

  3. When Brian May Played This

  4. Introduction & Thesis


  1. Is Brian Orser Married?

    As of January 2012, Brian Orser has not been married yet, but he has been in a relationship with Rajesh Tiwari for four years. Orser was forced to come out about his homosexuality when his ex-boyfriend Craig Leask sued him for palimony in 1...

  2. What Kind of Dog Is Brian Griffin?

    Brian Griffin, the talking dog and member of the Griffin family in the “Family Guy” animated series, is a white Labrador retriever. Labrador Retrievers are medium-sized working dogs that, according to the American Kennel Club, are the most ...

  3. What Are the Reported Causes of the Ann Curry and Brian Ross Divorce?

    As of 2015, newscaster Ann Curry and her husband Brian Ross, a software executive, are still married. The couple met while attending the University of Oregon and have two children, Walker and McKenzie. There are no reports of marital unrest...


    Brian May 2007. In the reference research for this thesis I have made use of NASA's Astrophysics Data System. Bibliographic Services (ADS). Thanks! I would

  5. A survey of radial velocities in the zodiacal dust cloud

    Authors · May, Brian Harold ; Item Type · Thesis or dissertation ; Abstract:

  6. Queen's Guitarist Publishes Astrophysics Thesis

    Brian May's thesis examines the mysterious phenomenon knownas Zodiacal light, a misty diffuse cone of light that appears in the westernsky after

  7. Brian May, guitarist for rock band Queen, completes Ph.D. thesis

    Brian May, guitarist for rock band Queen, completes Ph.D. thesis following 30-year hiatus. Brian May, the guitarist and founding member of the

  8. A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud

    Look up "How fast does the Sun orbit the Milky Way? Brian May's Astrophysics Thesis on Solar System Dust." I enjoyed the

  9. Even if you did the research for your PhD thesis FORTY YEARS

    Rather than continue his thesis revisions, he dropped out and joined a rock band.

  10. Queen Guitarist Brian May Is Also an Astrophysicist: Read His PhD

    Queen Guitarist Brian May Is Also an Astrophysicist: Read His PhD Thesis Online ... Queen couldn't possibly have been Queen without Freddie

  11. Brian May's Astrophysics Thesis on Solar System Dust

    This week I sat down and read Dr Brian May's (from Queen) astrophysics thesis all about dust in the plane of the Solar System.

  12. A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud

    Keywords. Brian May PhD; Brian May thesis; Brian May's research; Canopus; El Teide observations; Imperial College London; Solar System; Zodiacal Dust Cloud

  13. What is Queen guitarist Brian May's PhD thesis about, dumbed

    Of course! Brian May, the guitarist of Queen, actually has a PhD in Astrophysics. His thesis is about something called "zodiacal light dust.

  14. The Rock Star's Dusty Astronomy Thesis

    "Astronomy's much more fun when you're not an astronomer" - Brian May. I wholeheartedly agree, that's why I studied finance