Brian May of Queen is best known for his towering guitar solos in songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Killer Queen.” But before May became a rock star, he spent his time studying the stars, and by that, I don’t mean other musical luminaries. Between 1970 and 1974, Brian May was studying for a doctorate in astrophysics at London’s Imperial College, a goal that was cut short when Queen’s self-titled debut album became a success on the U.K. album charts, propelling May, singer Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon of Queen toward international super-stardom.
A wildly successful music career did not dull Brian May’s interest in astrophysics. According to BBC News, Brian May re-enrolled in Imperial College in 2006 and resumed work on his original PhD thesis on the formation of zodiacal dust clouds composed of space dust that comes from comets and asteroid collisions. May completed his Ph.D. in a little over a year and has gone on to author books and continue his work in astrophysics, including a stint serving as chancellor of John Moores University in Liverpool between 2007 and 2013.
May recently appeared on Jonesy’s Jukebox, a radio program hosted by Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. According to Ultimate Guitar, Brian May was asked about his thoughts on the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe. His answer suggests a fair degree of skepticism based on what he suspects could be the very low probability of all the right elements coming together in just the right way to form life. May suggests that the probability could be so slim that it essentially approaches zero, making the existence of life on Earth such an incredibly rare phenomenon that it may very well not be duplicated anywhere else.
“It’s the probability of life evolving in the first place, multiplied by the probability of the planet being the right temperature, multiplied by the probability of it being the right distance from its sun… You multiply all these together and you get the probability,” May said. “Now the trouble is – nobody knows the value of the most of the terms in that equation. [Laughs] The big thing is how probable it is that life can evolve spontaneously, and nobody knows that to this day. It could be like zero probability. If it’s even a small probability, you multiply it by the number of systems in the known universe, then there’s gonna be a life out there, for sure.”
May goes on to wax philosophically about the topic, covering such concepts as the Drake equation, which involves the probability of life being able to exist elsewhere in the universe, evolution by natural selection, and how life can generate in the first place.
“So how does it happen? How do we get to that first organism that can reproduce itself and start adapting to its environment, and developing arms and legs and eyes,” May asks? “Even Einstein used to wake up having nightmares about how something so complex as an eye can evolve by natural selection. But most scientists think that it can.”
Naturally, the philosophically charged conversation turned to the existence of God, for which May also remains agnostic.
“I don’t rule out the possibility of the existence of God,” May said. “Science is very good for looking for patterns and relationships. But as to why things happen, science doesn’t really have anything to say.”
The beauty of science, as Brian May demonstrates, is that for every answer it provides, a new question comes to light. The neverending quest for knowledge leaves plenty of room for speculation and philosophical pondering over the mysteries of existence.
Watch Brian May’s full Jonesy’s Jukebox interview below.
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