Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Brian May, guitarist of Queen

'I decided to do a PhD on stardust'

Jonathan Sale
Thursday 23 November 2006 01:00
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Brian May, 59, is the guitarist of the band Queen, whose Greatest Hits has just been named the bestselling UK album ever. He is also an astronomer, and co-author, with Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott, presenters of The Sky at Night, of Bang! - The Complete History of the Universe ( www.banguniverse.com)

I used to frighten the neighbours by standing in the middle of the road to catch something rising in the east - they thought it was burglars. I got my first guitar for my seventh birthday, and around that time, my father and I made a telescope from a kit. It was a 4in reflector, and it was amazing what you could see with it: the Moons of Jupiter, the Rings of Saturn. I projected sun-spots on to some paper and saw them moving across.

It was Patrick Moore's The Sky at Night that made me want a telescope. I was allowed to stay up late to watch the show - and now I've been a guest on it; my dad would be very happy.

The big treat at Cardinal Road Infants, in Feltham, Middlesex, was to sit on an air-raid shelter beside the school. The girls would play a game called "I wish I was..." One day, I said, "I wish I was a bum". I had no idea what it meant. The teacher said, "We are all going inside. Brian May has just used a rude word."

I remember winning a first prize and being given a book, Black Beauty. This coincided with a wart being cut off my finger in a clinic attached to the school. It was agony and I went home in pain. My mother decided to read Black Beauty to me, and I found it so sad. I found out that there are some things in life that can't be made better.

At Hanworth Road Juniors, I was pretty much an all-rounder, and enjoyed the science lessons and the English lessons. My favourite thing was rainy days, when we could stay inside to read comics, such as Eagle, featuring "Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future", a great inspiration.

Hampton Grammar was a good school - I'm a governor now - but it was all-boys, and, on the whole, I think segregation is not a good idea. Music was my friend from a very young age, but music at school wasn't a very good experience for me; we were forced to listen to classical music and told what to think of it. We used to hide round the back of the cycle sheds with our guitars, which were not allowed at school.

I got about 12 O-levels, and at A-level opted for pure maths, applied maths, additional maths and physics, and, with two As and a B, got a place at Imperial College London. There were some brilliant lecturers - Dr Payne, for example, who would bound across the stage making wave motions to illustrate his lectures on "Vibration and Waves".

When I was on the Entertainments Committee, I booked Jimi Hendrix. Later, Queen played that same hall, and we got our first review, in Disc. We were able to book the Albert Hall for charity, and got Hendrix, the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band, Free and Spooky Tooth. Smile, my student band, opened the show.

I got a 2:1, and there was pressure on me to get a proper job, so I decided to do a PhD on "Zodiacal dust" - stardust. You see it as a cone-shaped glow in the west at the end of the twilight, and in the east just before dawn. After four years, all the thesis wanted was binding, but I had a continuing debate with my supervisor, who thought I should be doing more, and I ran out of enthusiasm. I now spend odd moments typing it up again, and the head of astrophysics at Imperial has offered to supervise its submission. Giving it up for music in 1972 was a big risk, but when a certain door opens, you either walk through it or you don't. It won't open again.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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