DR TIM NAYLOR:
I wish all my lectures started like that.
Brian May is one of the world’s leading rock guitarists, so those of you who’ve been doing an analytical study of the programme may be wondering why on earth Exeter is giving him the degree of Doctor of Science.
Well, let me start by attempting to answer the question. I’d like you to imagine interviewing the 18-year old Brian May for a place to read on an undergraduate Physics course. His burning interest in Astronomy would be clear. This is the boy who frightened the neighbours by standing in the middle of the road at night to see an object that was rising in the east. The neighbours assumed he was a burglar. He’ll need that sort of enthusiasm to carry him through the course. But, he’s built a guitar and a telescope and uses them both. So, he’s a practical bent, which is always a good indicator, and, he’s got musical ability, which so often goes with Physics or Maths. The will to succeed in such outside interests is a good indicator, provided they don’t take up too much time.
And finally, it’s clear there’s a formal intellect there. He has good ‘A’ levels in Maths and Physics from Hampton Grammar School. I suspect, but I don’t know, that you’d also detect a certain style there - style, combined with the precision of a mathematician. I think we’d let him in.
Unsurprisingly therefore, Brian May won a place at Imperial College to read Physics and from there went on to do a PhD, studying the dust between the planets. This may sound a dry, academic study, but it has its roots in a very important problem – the problem of how the planet that you’re sitting on today coagulated from dust around the early Sun, how those particles stick together, and why the resulting boulders don’t smash themselves apart. It’s still an area of active research, closely related to the star and planet formation research, which we carry out here in Exeter.
But returning to Brian May’s PhD, he found music was increasingly cutting into his time. For example, he served on the Entertainments Committee. This was no small-time venture though. They booked the Albert Hall for people such as Jimi Hendrix to come and appear. At the same time Brian May was playing in his first band, Smile, but then with Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury and John Deacon, the band that became Queen.
In the end, the combination of teaching Maths in a Comprehensive School, writing up a thesis, and playing in a band that was on the bring of breakthrough was too much, and Brian made a choice to drop the Astrophysics.
His best-known contributions to Queen are as writer, vocalist and lead guitar. His songs include “We Will Rock You” which has become an anthem, though not the anthem he chose to play on the Palace roof - that’s another story. As a vocalist he not only contributes to the distinctive harmony of the group, but also some of the lead vocals. His guitar solos have a real drive and precision to them. As anybody knows, for example, “I Want To Break Free” can testify. I choose this one as an example, because of the way Deacon’s lyrics are driven home by accompanying video. Brian May puts in a memorable performance in a pink dressing gown, curlers(!) and the most amazing pair of slippers – a certain style to match the drive and precision of his guitar playing.
With Queen his work includes the solo album “Back To The Light” in which “Too Much Love Will Kill You” shows his real versatility, in addition to winning an Ivor Novello Award.
But Brian May has never managed to break with Astronomy. He still uses his telescope, oh, and the guitar, his famous Red Special.
About 10 years ago he struck up a friendship with Patrick Moore, who persuaded him to take seriously the idea of co-authoring a book on Cosmology. Such books popularising Science are crucial. Not only do they encourage more people to take up Science, but they also spread scient
'Known for the hugeness of my gong' - Roger