Saturday, 2 February 2019

Dr. Brian May: polymath

This post on the wonders of the New Horizons mission is a two parter, with the first half being expertly done by my good pal and professional astronomer Ryan Marciniak. My part focuses on the path one of my favourite musicians underwent to end up on NASA's rolodex.

For Ryan's insightful take on our latest bout of excellence in space travels, go here:

The link between music and astronomy begins over 200 years ago with William Herschel.  Most famous for discovering Uranus and infrared radiation, he was also a composer. By the 20th century, Danish composer Hakon Borresen wrote a ballet about Tycho Brahe, and one of German composer Paul Hindemith's operas was based on Johannes Kepler. Polish composer Henrik Gorecki's second Symphony was entitled The Copernican. American composer Philip Glass wrote an album about Galileo, and later composed another opera on Kepler. Glass also wrote a piece about the constellation Orion.

One of the first rock bands to dive into astronomy was Rush, with the vividly detailed "Cygnus X-1" in 1977. About a decade later, Todd Rundgren wrote a beautiful and introspective piece called "Hawking." But the first rock musician to properly incorporate astronomy into music was Brian May of Queen. In 1975 he composed a piece for the band's A Night at the Opera album entitled "'39," which details an astronaut's journey as per the time dilation effect. The protagonist feels like he has traversed space for only a year, but to the people at home on Earth he has been gone for a hundred. May later revealed how it had another layer to it (unbeknownst even to him on a conscious level at first), about the contemplation of the changes that occur at home and within oneself when one leaves their roots in search of experiences and meaning in life.

Teide Observatory, Tenerife, 1971

May's career in astronomy actually began before Queen did, but he abandoned his Ph.D. studies in 1974 after the band found commercial success. He eventually finished his doctorate on the motions of interplanetary dust in 2007, a topic that had fallen out of fashion in the 1970s but gained a renewed interest as other habitable zone planets were being discovered.  An asteroid was named "52665 Brianmay" in his honour the following year.

He is also a lifelong enthusiast of stereo photography, an art of 3D photo viewing that traces back to the 1840s. The premise is that two photos of the same object or scene taken at slightly different angles can pop out in 3D, either by crossing one's eyes or viewing the images through a stereoscope.  Unbeknownst to millions of Queen fans for decades, May's [and bassist John Deacon's] love for stereoscopy graces the back cover of their debut album.

The toy drummer in the middle is a stereo pair.

May's affinity for stereoscopy never waned. All those years of touring often saw him rummaging through the shops of the world in search of stereo cards, and his collection is apparently one of the finest in the world. He has since written or co-written numerous books on stereo photography, astronomy, music, or any combination thereof.

In 2013, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield sent May photos from the International Space Station, which he turned into stereos that he presented at the Starmus conference in Tenerife a year later. The conference was the Woodstock of science, with the added bonus of being able to meet your heroes without a backstage pass. Nobel Laureates, men who walked on the moon, and household names like Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson mingled with the rest of us. 
Stephen Hawking was the headliner, and one of the opening acts was Brian May.

The collaboration between Hadfield and May seems to have begun with this brief Twitter bromance.

The audience of about 500 all received specially designed stereoscopic 3D glasses (designed by May and photo historian and stereoscopy expert Denis Pellerin) to view images of planets, moons, and asteroids in their full 3D glory from their seat in the conference room (not before May began with a 3D image of Freddie Mercury, to much joyful recognition from the crowd of delegates). He also explained how parallax is not only used to calculate our distance from faraway objects in the universe, but by our eyes on a daily basis, as they constantly do these same calculations so that we can see the world in 3D throughout our lives.

I was there, in the middle of the oohs and aahs.  At one point May stated how he would spend several days at the computer working on single images to maximize their 3D capabilities, to a standing ovation. In a seminar in which he had set the stage by explaining how the school system in his day taught him that it was impossible to be both a scientist and an artist, watching the scientific community embrace his unique blending of science and art a half century later, at a conference specifically designed to blend science with the arts, was nothing short of magical.

Aside from touring, Brian May's musical activities have mostly taken a back seat in recent years while he has pursued his other passions.  He was most recently a scientific and musical contributor to the New Horizons mission.  His first solo composition in nearly 20 years, entitled New Horizons, found one passion of his reigniting another.

He premiered the song at the NASA headquarters New Year's event immediately after counting down to 2019. His goal in writing it was not only to commemorate the mission, but also to celebrate our inherent inquisitive nature as a species.  Days later he posted on his blog his own stereo pair of the first clear images of Ultima Thule, the furthest object we have ever travelled to.

It is of little coincidence that memes like this pop up, as people are now connecting the dots between his musical and academic pursuits:

Brian May has created a second career in exercising his star power to bring science and academia to the masses in an accessible way. He is a Renaissance man. I'd argue he is the Leonardo da Vinci of our time.

Who wants to live forever? Probably no-one.

But I wish he could.

1 comment:

  1. Here's to Brian May and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. May they both live long that we all may prosper. Great story Bob!