What Makes A Scientist Rock?

Feb 18, 2013

It’s a Musician! It’s a Scientist! It’s… an Asteroid?

What does New Wave music and DNA chromosomes in E. coli have in common? Mira Aroyo, vocalist of Ladytron, an English electropop band, was working on her PhD at Oxford in genetics when she quit research science to pursue a music career. 

In an interview with London’s Daily Record in 2008, she explained the transition. 

“We all had jobs when we started Ladytron then little by little we ditched them,” she said, “I was a geneticist doing a PhD and realizing lab work wasn't for me. We were doing Ladytron at the same time and I was enjoying it more. It was easier and more fun.” 

Musicians with PhDs in science are more common than you might think. Ideals valued in a good research scientist -- creativity, tenacity, and a tendency to challenge dogma -- also make for a successful musician. 

Brian May, guitarist of the famed rock band of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Queen, finished a PhD in astrophysics in 2007. In 1972 and 1973, May co-authored two research papers concerning interplanetary dust in the solar system -- its effects on reflected light and its velocity through space.  Currently, May is Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University and has an asteroid named after him -- 52665 Brianmay. It’s a minor planet in the asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter.   

Greg Graffin, frontman of punk rock band Bad Religion, is also a professor of life sciences and paleontology at UCLA. His PhD project at Cornell was entitled “The Cornell Evolution Project,” and studied evolutionary biologists and their relation to religion, naturalism and philosophy. Since, Graffin has written a few books on evolution, philosophy and religion and is an activist for religious skepticism, recently headlining the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. last March.   

If musicians doing heavy science seems like a weird phenomenon, jazz saxophonist John Butcher describes the two fields as very loosely connected. 

“I think they occupy different areas, although as a scientist, there's a certain searching-to-make-sense-of-things,” he said in a 2001 interview with the Paris Transatlantic magazine, “a desire to persevere with something until you understand it, plus a desire to look around corners at seemingly abstruse notions to see if they're relevant, which may have had an influence in terms of how I work on music privately.”

Butcher’s PhD lies in quantum physics; making mathematical models for quarks, the smallest building blocks that make up atoms.   

Many more musicians hold or have worked on PhDs before moving on to music full time, including Milo Aukerman of The Descendents, Dexter Holland of the Offspring, and even Gregg Michael Gillis of Girl Talk. Next time you think research science requires only a certain breed of person, think again, because famed musicians -- and science -- may surprise you.