By Avram Lavinsky
Just after midnight, 2019, a metal object with roughly the size and proportions of a grand piano drifted by two enormous rocks fused together in space. It would take months for the images gathered by the satellite dish of the New Horizons probe to reach earth, four billion miles away. When they did, scientists would still debate the optimal name for what the images revealed: a shape like two desiccated cookies, one larger than the other, twenty-two miles long in total, twelve miles wide and six miles thick.
The body was just one among many thousands of icy worlds beyond the solid planets like our own, beyond the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, in the Kuiper Belt, the vast outer region of our solar system. It was not until November of that year that NASA’s New Horizons team would agree, with the permission of Powhatan Tribal elders, to name the heavenly body Arrokoth, a Powhatan/Algonquian word for sky. It had taken the New Horizons probe thirteen years to travel from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral in Brevard County, Florida to the Kuiper Belt – even with the added momentum of a gravity boost as it zipped by Jupiter in January of 2007. No man-made object has traveled further.
But perhaps the part of the scientific endeavor that garnered the most popular press coverage was the presence on the team of an astrophysicist with a head covered in silver curls that trailed down his back, not unlike those of another great man of science, Isaac Newton. One could travel to the outer reaches of the solar system several times in the years it took Doctor May to complete his doctorate at Imperial College London – thirty-seven years and eight months. During those years, he recorded some of the most beloved guitar work in the history of popular music, earned a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and acquired a couple of hundred million dollars. In the time between completing his Ph.D. and receiving the images from New Horizons, while he served as vice president of one of the largest charities in the United Kingdom, an asteroid and a species of damselfly were named after him.
In February of that year, the movie Bohemian Rhapsody was released. May consulted on the movie, along with his bandmate Roger Taylor. The movie would collect four Oscars and 850 million dollars at the box office.
In July of that year, prior to playing an arena in Toronto, May would receive a medal from the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. It was a stop on the well-planned North American tour of Queen, the band Brian May co-founded at the age of twenty-three.
A casual consumer of the news might assume that there are two Brian Mays, one a guitar hero and one an astrophysicist. How else can one reconcile such accomplishments with the frequent failures and mediocrities associated with an ordinary life? But no, one man did it all.
In fact, one might argue that Brian May’s success is greater than a resume and a few numbers suggest. Many successes in the sciences are predicated upon accidental discovery. Many successes in the arts are predicated upon a departure from artistic sensibilities to gain popularity, oversimplification, dumbing down, selling out. No one could accuse Brian May of either tactic. New Horizons may be one of the most deliberate endeavors in scientific history and one of the longest in its execution. A Night at the Opera, the album that began Queen’s global success, was a brazen departure from the popular conventions of the time. Knowing that radio stations demanded tracks no more than three minutes long, the band released the highly experimental album with a six-minute epic compilation of three motifs, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as the single, and one B-side track that clocked in at eight minutes and twenty-one seconds. Moreover, May’s three-part layering in the studio, his tasteful weaving of embellishment and memorable themes endeared him to fellow musicians, critics and the public alike.
Of course, all great success requires great timing. If Brian May had expressed his love of astronomy four centuries ago, he would probably have been burned at the stake like fellow cosmological theorists of the day. If Queen released A Night at the Opera tomorrow, the best they could hope for would be some income from well-attended live shows and a tiny fraction of the financial success they might provide for the stockholders of social media corporations. Their longevity would be measured not in decades within the pantheon of rock and roll, but within the context of internet sensations — a ratio not unlike the lifespan of a human being compared to the lifespan of the damselfly which bears Doctor May’s name.
May’s journey is worth considering because he reminds us of how often we sell ourselves short. As consumers of art, we tend to assume that the artist has no more to offer than the glimpse of work to which we are exposed. We distrust artists who explore more than one medium, even more than one style, even more than one instrument. It is unsettling to consider that Van Cliburn’s first love was singing because we picture him at the piano. Once we go beyond the arts, it’s even more tempting to be dismissive. Condoleezza Rice is a politician, a former secretary of state. Could she really be an accomplished musician? Yes, she performed with professional orchestras in her teens. She hails from a musical family, and her name is a variation of the Italian marking “con dolcezza,” or “with sweetness.”
May’s relationship with academia through the years is illuminating. A boy, still in grammar school, builds an electric guitar with his father, teaches himself how to play, and performs with local bands while he goes on to earn his Bachelor of Science in Physics. Three years later, he drops out of graduate school to dedicate himself to a band, only to resume his studies many years later. He would have been a very different player had he taken a more academic path towards music. He would have stood no chance of success had he completed his studies directly and first dedicated himself to music in his thirties or forties, and he would be viewed quite differently in the scientific community were his knowledge of astrophysics entirely self-taught.
Brian May reminds us how much we limit our own dreams and visions. We see paths as mutually exclusive. We take no chances. We do not persevere. We stagnate. We believe that to commit to a path is to conform to it, to commit to our image of it, narrow and confining. We fear spreading ourselves too thin because we have seen mediocrity spread thin, but mediocrity is always ubiquitous. It is the humble beginning of every brilliant success.
If Brian May’s success in such unrelated realms seems maddeningly beyond the expectations of a single human life, he recently revealed that he is all too human. Two days ago, the seventy-two-year-old acknowledged that he suffered a heart attack this month while undergoing treatment for a sciatic nerve impingement. Ironically, the outspoken May had expressed outrage at England’s poor preparedness for the outbreak of COVID-19, citing insufficient supplies of protective equipment just weeks prior to his own hospitalization. He’s home and recovering well now after receiving three stents in lieu of open-heart surgery.
Avram Lavinsky has been published in Strings magazine and was a semifinalist in this year’s VanderMey Nonfiction Prize competition. He earned a gold record for his work with Blues Traveler. He lives on Boston’s South Shore with his three sons.