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Astronomy Buff

An astronomy buff stands next to the Clyde Tombaugh bust at Lowell Observatory.

In 1974, a British astrophysics student nearing completion of his doctoral thesis found himself at a crossroads.

Ever so close to graduating, Bri, as his friends often called him, was dealing with what he later called, simply, “various pressures” unrelated to his studies. He concluded he must either finish writing and submitting his thesis or set it aside while he dealt with the external challenges. He ultimately took a break from his studies — a very long break, in fact — and ended up pursuing another career. Remarkably, he finally returned to his lifelong love of astronomy three decades later, and at the age of 60 earned his doctoral degree.

Bri’s passion for astronomy had started at an early age. As a youth he was inspired by fellow countryman Patrick Moore, an amateur astronomer who popularized space through his compelling books and radio and television productions. After high school, Bri attended Imperial College London, earning high honors while graduating with a BSc degree in physics.

In 1970 he entered the school’s PhD program and began researching the so-called zodiacal light. This is a faint, triangular-shaped glow in the sky best seen in the direction of the Sun just before sunrise and just after sunset. It is generally indistinct except in very dark locations. The glow is a result of sunlight reflecting off of microscopic particles located in a lens-shaped zone in the solar system called the interplanetary dust cloud.

About his research, Bri later recalled in a 2010 interview with National Public Radio’s Terri Gross, “It's a study of dust. As simple as that. Dust, in this case, in the solar system. We're actually surrounded by it. The earth moves through a cloud of dust constantly and a lot of it comes down to Earth. My experiment was trying to figure out the motion of that dust. Where it's going, what it's doing, where it came from and what it means in terms of the creation of the solar system."

Bri not only carried out his own research on zodiacal light but also reviewed past studies, becoming an expert on the topic. Then came 1974 and his decision to put it all aside. A successful career in another field later, he connected with his old hero, Patrick Moore, and soon found himself back in astronomy. In 2006 they collaborated with a colleague of Moore’s to write a book, Bang: The Complete History of the Universe. Bri’s passion for space rekindled, he went back to school and two years later, on May 14, 2008, graduated from Imperial College London with his PhD in astrophysics.

In the beginning of his dissertation, titled A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, Bri included an epigram appropriate for his work, “Dust in the Wind … all we are is Dust in the Wind …” from the popular song by the rock band Kansas. This connection to music shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who know Bri because he is quite musically inclined. In fact, the “various pressures” that delayed his finishing the dissertation revolved around music. In 1970 he had helped form a rock band and by 1974 it was so popular that Bri decided to focus his efforts in that arena. The band was Queen and Bri, better known as Brian May, was — and in fact still is — the lead guitarist who has also written several of the groups’ songs, including We Will Rock You.

These days, May is busier than ever as a musician and scientist, as well as an activist and photographer. On the science side, he co-founded Asteroid Day, a global effort designed to raise awareness about asteroid impacts; was appointed as a Visiting Researcher at Imperial College; wrote more astronomy books; and worked with the New Horizons mission team during the 2015 Pluto flyby.

May visited Flagstaff this past week to see Lowell Observatory, Meteor Crater and the United States Geological Survey. This brief astronomy trip was sandwiched between concerts in Las Vegas. May’s schedule won’t let up any time soon, as two other major projects will soon come to fruition. His next book, called Mission Moon 3-D: A New Perspective on the Space Race and co-written with astronomy popularizer/writer David Eicher, will be released on Oct. 23 and the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, a biographical film about Queen, opens the following day in the United Kingdom.

It seems that May has solved that old problem of making choices — if you can’t decide between two things you really want to do, figure out how to do both.

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