VSL:SCIENCE // The rock-star thesis

It sounds like the title of a Spinal Tap song: “Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud.” But this isn’t part of a rock mockumentary or a joke from Wayne’s World. Brian May, the bushy-haired guitarist for Queen, recently completed his astrophysics thesis, which he began in the early 1970s as a grad student at Imperial College in London. Although May was a promising young scientist, he decided to take a break from research in 1974 so he could go on tour with a little-known singer named Freddie Mercury. Within a few years, Queen would become one of the biggest rock bands in the world.

In 2006, while rummaging through his attic, May, now 61, discovered his long-neglected thesis and decided to finish it. Despite the sci-fi-ish title, the research concerns a longstanding cosmological mystery that is firmly grounded in reality. The zodiacal light is a diffuse cone of brightness that sometimes appears in the eastern sky a few hours before sunrise. While the glow is often mistaken for a “false dawn,” the zodiacal light is actually sunlight bouncing off space debris that’s circling the sun. May’s research was enthusiastically endorsed by his thesis committee, but he has no plans to become an astrophysicist anytime soon. Right now, he and Queen are heading out on tour with a new album.

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