In 2007, a student at London’s Imperial College submitted his doctoral thesis, a 35 chapter, 48.000 word behemoth called “A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.” According to the introduction, he conducted his research into “the entire history of Zodiacal Light research” with “particular attention […] paid to the development of Doppler measurements and to the most recent revelations of infrared surveys.”
That’s a bit weightier than the song lyrics that Brian May is best known for writing, including some of your stepdad’s favorite tracks: “We Will Rock You,” “Fat Bottomed Girls,” and “Who Wants to Live Forever.” Because yeah, before he earned his doctorate in astrophysics, May was the guitarist for the band Queen. And without that day job, he might’ve scored his PhD several decades earlier. “When I was about to finish my thesis it was just the beginnings of Queen and I had to make that choice,” he told Time. “And my choice was made on the assumption that I wasn’t very good at physics and I might be quite good at music.” (Spoiler Alert: He was. He is.)
May shelved that thesis for thirty years and focused on music, but that gave other astronomers a chance to catch up with the research he’d started in the early 1970s. “When I began, [zodiacal dust] was a hot topic, but in that 30 years it kind of lapsed,” he said. “What happened very luckily for me, however, people began discovering dust clouds around other suns, in other solar systems. And suddenly my subject became very in-demand again. I started talking about astronomy again to people who said, “why don’t you still do it?” I put everything, and I mean everything, on hold for a year. And they put me in a little office in Imperial College and I got down to it.”
The then 60-year-old spent nine months writing and revising and researching at Imperial College, in an attempt to finally finish what he’d started after he’d already bagged his undergrad degree in physics. He was finally awarded his PhD in 2008 — but he knows that’s probably not what people will remember him for.
“I guess ‘We Will Rock You’ will be on my tombstone, that’s probably unavoidable,” he sighed to Time. “The music is my center and I think music is what gave me the gift of everything else.”