Hard Rock in the Solar System

The Zodiacal Light is a fuzzy glow visible in the morning and evening sky, stretching along the line along which the constellations of the zodiac appear — the ecliptic that we now know to be the plane made up of the sun and the orbits of the planets. Observations of the zodiacal light show it to be due to reflections from dust in the plane, dust thought to be mostly the detritus of collisions between and among asteroids, comets, and more distance objects from the Kuiper Belt.

This week we in the Imperial astrophysics group were treated to a talk on the zodiacal light by Brian May, the group’s newest postgraduate student (and one of the eldest). Brian started his Imperial PhD in the early 1970s, but decided to leave to play guitar, eventually, on the roof of Buckingham Palace. Last year, he decided to return to astrophysics and, perhaps amazingly, has finished his PhD thesis under the supervision of Michael Rowan-Robinson, the former head of our group and current President of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was actually lucky in his choice of topics: it hasn’t been a major research area since his last astronomical work three and a half decades ago but is coming to the fore again as we start seeing similar dust clouds orbiting distant stars, and as we worry about the obscuring properties of the local dust as we peer through it with ever-more-sensitive instruments, such as the Planck Surveyor.

For someone so, um, inexperienced in public speaking (or at least in giving scientific presentations), Brian gave a very good distillation of the history of the field (including the missing 35 years while he was indisposed) including his own work, and his own interpretations speculating that some of the light may be due to our movement through an even larger cloud of interstellar dust.

As is customary, we took Brian May (still “Mr. May” until he gets his PhD later in the Summer) out to dinner with members of the group, and he even joined us afterward for a pint at one of our locals. He paid for a round, and he was extremely gracious to the crowds who stared, pointed, and came up to chat. He was also accompanied by his chauffeur, a very nice guy who was also one of the… widest… men I’ve ever seen (and who seemed happy to sit in the very nice Lexus while Brian ate and drank with us).

Who would have through astrophysics would give me a taste of the rock’n’roll lifestyle?