Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | December 17, 2018

How people learn: The case of Dr Brian May

I am obsessed with stories of how people learn, and of their motivation for learning. 

This is Dr Brian May, and his personal story that appears to be unbelievable: the interesting bit is  2”07 – 3”32 of the BBC film. Aged 7, Brian May got obsessed with stereo photography and very soon started to produce his own stereopictures. 

By the time he joined Queen, he was doing PhD in Astrophysics (he formally defended his PhD only years later).

Well, the story is quite believable to me. Once upon a time I knew a boy who, at age 14, was repairing TV sets (primordial by modern standards, black and white, vacuum tube) for all his neighbours in a small provincial town. This job required an oscilloscope; he made one from his family’s TV set by adding an additional circuit and a switch between the two modes of operation: as a normal TV set and as an oscilloscope. In later life, he became a guru and wizard of the black art of fine-tuning of accelerators of elementary particles and was in charge of one of the biggest one in the world.

And, of course, there was Richard Feynman who, as a boy, famously “Fixed radios by thinking“.

Back to Brian May: his PhD thesis is published, and the preface contains this passage:

“I inherited a Fabry-Perot spectrometer and pulse-counting equipment from Prof. Ring, and spent 18 months entirely rebuilding and updating both the optics and electronics, in preparation for obtaining essentially first viable set of radial velocity measuremnents, all around the elcliptic, of the Zodiac Light. The writing of my thesis was virtually complete in 2006, but the submission was deferred due to various pressures.” 

It is easy to believe that May, as the lead guitarist of Queen, did not have the same issues with scales of measurement as Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap famously had: 

This goes to 11…  [watch from 1”16].


  1. Brian didn’t invent things as a child. His father, Harold, was an electronics engineer who once fixed up a tv for their home. What Brian did as a child was take stereoscopic images as inspired by his growing interest in stereoscopy.

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