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Queen's Brian May Rocks an Astrophysics Rhapsody

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Queen's Brian May Rocks an Astrophysics Rhapsody

Queen's Brian May Rocks an Astrophysics Rhapsody

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day. Earlier this week, the Griffith Park Observatory here in Los Angeles hosted a very special guest.

Dr. BRIAN MAY (Former Lead Guitarist, Queen; Astrophysicist): Ah, it's sensational.

Unidentified Man #1: You're looking right up at Sirius and Orion, of course.

Dr. MAY: That's the great Milky Way, isn't it?

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, yeah.

Dr. MAY: My God...

BRAND: Inside the observatory's planetarium, this special guest received a special honor. One of the planetarium seats, a good one, in the center, had been named after him. A little plaque on the arm rest bears his name.

Unidentified Man #2: To honor Astronomer Dr. Brian May. That's what is says, right there.

Dr. MAY: That's incredible.

BRAND: You've probably never heard of astronomer Dr. Brian May, but you've probably heard this.

(Soundbite of song "We Will Rock You")

Mr. FREDDIE MERCURY (Lead Singer of Queen): (Singing) We will, we will rock you...

BRAND: A classic, from the British rock band Queen. It was written by astronomer Dr. Brian May, Queen's lead guitarist.

(Soundbite of song "We Will Rock You")

BRAND: OK, rewind. How did a rock star become an astrophysicist? Well, actually, it was the other way 'round. Thirty-five years ago, Brian May was studying astronomy when the band he was in hit it big. He put his studies on hold as Queen went on to sell something like 400 million albums.

(Soundbite of song "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN: (Singing) Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see...

BRAND: A few light years later, well, just last year, Brian May finally finished his Ph.D. dissertation. The subject? Interplanetary dust. And he's coauthored a book that's out now. Its title almost sounds like the title of what could be a Queen song, "Bang: A Complete History of the Universe."

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: Brian May and I spoke for a few minutes at the observatory. He's tall, and thin and wore black pants, a black Edwardian-length coat, white sneakers and an electric Hawaiian shirt. His hair is a kinky black mass, long in the back. I asked him to put on his astronomer's hat and explain the beginning of everything, the big bang.

Dr. MAY: We can't see the beginning. No matter how good our telescopes get, we will probably, I would say, almost certainly, never be able to get back to the very beginning. And there's a couple of very good reasons for that, one of which is that the universe was not transparent at the beginning. It was opaque, it was a plasma, and it was only quite a long time after that, certainly there was this transition and light could travel without bumping into anything...

BRAND: So how can you even say that - when exactly the beginning was?

Dr. MAY: Well, one way you can do it, is by extrapolating things back. Because everything is moving away from itself, so you extrapolate back and you figure out when everything was not separated at all. So that's the crude estimate, really, of where we are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: And then do you have a theory for the end of the universe? The end of time?

Dr. MAY: One is that it just goes on expanding forever. Things get very sparse. Eventually, you'd get very lonely. One of the theories is that things continue to expand right down to the smallest scale. So after awhile not only does the sun flee from the other stars, but the materials within the sun and other stars and the planets, and us, start to disperse as well.

So eventually everything expands away from itself. And you're left with this sort of something which approaches zero density, which is a pretty bleak prognosis, isn't it? Some people think that the universe will stop expanding at a certain point, and start imploding on itself again, and there will be a big crunch at the end...

BRAND: What do you think?

Dr. MAY: Corresponding to the Big Bang. What do I think? I would say it's a fairly good guess it goes on forever. The Earth is long gone by then. See, my thing is, I look at humanity now, and I'm not sure if I want it to be dominating the universe.

I don't think we're that good at handling our planet at this moment. It makes me shudder when we talk about going to other worlds. I'm not that kind person, you know. I just think we'd make such a mess of everything. I would prefer it if we go confined to this corner until we learn how to behave.

BRAND: And speaking of behaving, you've done lots of different things in your life. And everyone, a lot of people know you as something completely different...

Dr. MAY: Yeah.

BRAND: A rock god, a rock star. How do you look...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: Is that right?

BRAND: What do you think of yourself? I mean, do you now consider yourself an astrophysicist? And do you - is that who Brian May is right now?

Dr. MAY: Eh, I'm probably still trying to figure out who Brian May is.

BRAND: Do you like being called Dr. May?

Dr. MAY: Yeah, I do. I worked for that. But I love being able to have my feet in these different worlds. It is a dream, and I realize that I'm in a very fortunate position.

BRAND: There seems to be a complete - I mean, I don't know, since I've never experienced this before, but it would seem to me, that there would be completely opposite sensations, when you're standing on a stage in front of maybe hundreds of thousands of fans, when you are so big in the eyes of so many, and then when you are looking at the stars and you are so tiny.

Dr. MAY: That's a good question!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: I don't feel very big on stage. I just feel like I'm part of a big party, I think. Yeah, I don't feel big in that sense. I think music is part communication. I think it's part of the way people touch each other. And that's very precious to me. And astronomy is, in a sense, an opposite thing, because it's sort of looking inwards and looking towards the people around you, looking out, out, out to what is outside us, and beyond our grasp. So I think of an awareness of sort of inner space and outer space is complementary. Does that make sense?

BRAND: Mm hm.

Dr. MAY: I think it's nice to have both things in your life.

BRAND: How have you incorporated astronomy into your music?

Dr. MAY: We're doing our first studio album with Paul Rogers, and which we call Queen plus Paul Rogers. There's a kind of cosmic overtone to it, and I think we're going to call the album "The Cosmos Rocks." I guess astronomy's creeping into music in that way.

BRAND: Hum. What about Galileo?

Dr. BRAND: (Singing) Galileo?

BRAND: (Singing) Galileo, Galileo...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MAY: It's amazing. It's hard, isn't it? Your life is full of strange connections.

(Soundbite of song "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN: (Singing) Galileo, Galileo, Galileo Figaro. Magnifico... But I'm just a poor boy. Nobody loves me...

BRAND: Brian May, Dr. Brian May, thank you very much.

Dr. MAY: It was a pleasure, thank you.

(Soundbite of song "Bohemian Rhapsody")

QUEEN: (Singing) Mama mia, mama mia, mama mia, let me go. Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me! So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye. So you think you can love me and leave me to die...

BRAND: Queen's miniature opera, "Bohemian Rhapsody," featuring Dr. Brian May on guitar. Pictures and an excerpt from his book, "Bang: A Complete History of the Universe," are at our website, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song "Bohemian Rhapsody")

BRAND: Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen.

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