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If I Were Half as Cool as Brian May

January 31, 2011 at 9:45 pm

I'd be damn interesting.  Hell, I'd be happy if I were one tenth as cool as Brian May.  (But maybe I'd also be a little full of myself, knowing I was so awesome.)

I listened to this interview with Dr. May several months ago, and it only served to make me respect the man even more than I already did.  He just seems like a really smart, really talented, down-to-earth guy.  And he's accomplished in both the arts and the sciences to an extent that's quite rare these days.   A modern day Renaissance Man, is Brian May.

For a long time I knew of Brian May strictly through Queen.  I happen to think he's a very talented musician, which alone gets my deep respect.  (You know how sometimes people say that anybody who understands math can become a musician?  LIES.  Nobody has ever explained sheet music to me in a way I can understand.  I am completely incapable of understanding even the simplest concepts in music theory.)  I had an officemate years ago who treated me to a live recording of May playing his Brighton Rock solo.  This was my first exposure to the concept of a single musician using echoes and reverb to play a multi-part harmony with himself.  It impressed me.

It was also during grad school, very late at night while grading a mountain of homework assignments and listening to music at an ear-ruining volume in order to stay awake, that I finally noticed the lyrics to '39.  How many bands write love songs around the theory of relativity and the Twin Paradox?

This puzzled and delighted me for a long time.  What a strange and wonderful topic for a rock ballad.  (And a lovely, touching song besides.) 

Only later did somebody clue me in to the rest of the story.  I hadn't known that Brian May had originally been working on his doctoral degree in astrophysics when he decided to put the research on hiatus in order to spend some time indulging his "hobby".  The hobby, of course, eventually becoming the band Queen.

I'm pretty sure that if I had dropped my studies in the middle of grad school I wouldn't have become a world-famous rock and roll star.  I'd be living on a steam grate right now. 

But my favorite part of the story is the fact that May—er, Dr. May— eventually went back and finished his thesis a few years ago.

It's a pretty safe bet that if I had dropped my studies in the middle of grad school to become a world-famous rock and roll star, I wouldn't have bothered to return to my thesis work after a couple decades spent touring the world.

And then it turns out that while he was touring the world with Queen, he was also becoming an expert on an obscure branch of 19th century photography.  You know, as a hobby. 

I would have liked to hear more about his interest in stereoscopic photography; I have to admit I was a little disappointed by the interview for this reason.  I used to listen to Fresh Air quite a bit when I lived in a place where it was easy to catch the show.  For years, I've considered Terry Gross a strong and effective interviewer.  This episode let me down a bit, though, because the interview focused so much on Brian May's time with Queen and so little on his newer efforts.  I'd imagine that May is tired of answering questions about the band after all these years.  You can hear it in his voice a couple of times during the interview.  But he's polite about it.

I'd like to imagine that if I ever had a chance to hang out with Brian May, he'd appreciate the fact that I didn't turn into a squeeing fanboy.  I'd ask him about his thesis work, we'd swap war stories about school, and later we'd call up Batman and go out for tacos.  (He has Batman on speed dial.  Count on it.)


Brit Mandelo February 1, 2011 at 10:12 am
The math-and-music thing works backwards, too: I can read and play music, but higher math is a hopeless endeavor. Also, I never knew all that about Brian May. It's... Pretty awesome.
Ian February 1, 2011 at 11:11 am
I've heard that same thing from other musicians, too. I'm beginning to think the math/music connection is really only relevant to those of us living in ancient Greece... Isn't Brian May the coolest? Oh, and btw, sorry to hear about the eligibility issue for the Fan Writer Hugo. That's kind of sucky ;-(
February 1, 2011 at 3:22 pm
Danica McKellar, tweener babe Winnie Cooper from "The Wonder Years", graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in mathematics -- proof that you can be left-brained AND right-bodied. She has three books out encouraging young people, especially young women, to embrace mathematics. Two of the books went NYT bestseller. Cool support for the idea that, with the right approach, kids can learn not to fear the math side of things. I've known several people who were so far left-brain that they had very limited empathy and social skills. One fellow, after learning that I had read Niven's "Ringworld", got out pencil and paper and showed me the math he had worked out that proved it could exist. I did not understand anything after, "Let me show you the math." It went on for over an hour. He didn't notice me squirming. However, Albert Einstein said on numerous occasions that he valued his imagination far above any mathematical skill he might have -- imagination/intuition/visualization residing in the right brain(according to the most popular acceptance of left brain/right brain theory.) Einstein let his imagination & visualization roam then came back and expressed it in equations. Leonardo da Vinci evidently was able to run both "processors" in parallel -- there are many indications in his notebooks to support this. I find it interesting that both math and language are said to reside in the left brain, with visualization in the right. At first glance math and language might seem in opposition, but both are actually relatively recent developments in our brains (almost a shallow overlay) and both are symbol-based. There are many instances of mathematicians/scientists/engineers solving problems in their dreams. What is fascinating is the mechanism of translation -- taking the imagery from dreamtime and converting it into the symbols of communication. (The classic test to determine whether one one is dreaming, "Pinch Me", does not work -- a dream pinch feels real. But since dreaming is largely right-brain, words and numbers are unstable in dreams; find a book or newspaper and try to read it, you may get meaning briefly but the letters will quickly go random. Researchers pursuing lucid dreams often have a sign on the wall, to serve as an instant "Am I dreaming this?" check.) Interesting to note that music is processed by both sides at once. There is a lot of research using music as a carrier for tones designed to run both sides in parallel. So "musical ability" may be less important than "musical sensitivity", for music to act as a bridge. One of the questions I like to ask writers is, "Do you listen to music while writing?" With the followup: "And how do different works affect your style?" Musicians show heavier development of parts of the left brain *and* the corpus callosum that connects the lobes -- strengthening the bridge between the two sides. Rhythm, interestingly, is largely processed right-brain. Which explains why different types of music can influence the pace of scenes written while listening to them. Keeping this in mind, a writer might develop a library of music tailored to facilitate/optimize different scenes. "Track One: Action. Track Two: Philosophy. Track Three: Sex Scene."
Brit Mandelo February 1, 2011 at 10:02 pm
These things happen. Actually, it turns out the QSFF post-series is eligible for Best Related Work, but I don't have the tiniest chance in hell of that one. (Plus, people tend to only vote for books in that category, even though it doesn't have to be books.)
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