Meet 6 rock star scientists
They've got resumes longer than your arm, more diplomas than you can count — and they like to rock a crowd. (Oh, and one of them even knows how to study rocks.)
Thu, Feb 13, 2014 at 02:47 PM
Some have retired from music, others have retired from science, and all know how to draw a crowd.
Sold-out venues, late-night talk show appearances, celebrity benefits, adoring groupies ... gone are the days when working scientists were primarily regarded as stuffy, semi-reclusive academics. We've officially entered the age of the rock star scientist, an age where years of research, advocacy and teaching will not only get you a highly coveted fellowship or a slap on the back from the scientific community, but also a spot on "Dancing with the Stars" or "The Daily Show." It's all about the charisma, a willingness to communicate and, at times, stir up a bit of controversy. Just ask Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins or Neil deGrasse Tyson – challenging convention and getting people to wake up and acknowledge the world around them, to think, certainly never hurt anyone. Heck, you might even get a fish named after you.
And then there are the select few who really are scientist rock stars – pop and rock musicians who also happen to hold PhDs in astrophysics, biochemistry, genetics. Some have retired from the music industry to focus on their scientific pursuits; some have abandoned a life of science only to return to it decades later; some manage to both rock out and pursue science-based careers; some were never even musicians at all, but they wear the "rock star" tag so well that you'd swear they headlined sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in a former life.
Here are six of our favorite rock star scientists:
Brian Cox during the Wonders Of The Solar System panel during the Summer Television Critics Association press tour in 2010. (Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
"Things Can Only Get Better" indeed. Although Brian Cox, 45, enjoyed a nice bit of chart-topping success in the 1990s as the keyboardist for the British dance-pop act D:Ream, he's now moved on to literally bigger things ... like the Large Hadron Collider.
A noted professor of particle physics at his alma mater, the University of Manchester, who is currently involved with the ATLAS experiment in Switzerland, Cox really traded in the trappings of pop stardom — save for the shaggy pop star hairdo — when he completed his Ph.D. thesis on high energy particle physics titled "Double Diffraction Dissociation at Large Momentum Transfer" in 1998. Although the nuts and bolts of his current work with ATLAS might make non-physics buffs’ eyes glaze over, Cox has also helped to make physics — and astronomy and natural history — more accessible to the general public. He's a veteran of the TED talk circuit and a frequent presenter and guest on numerous BBC radio and television programs including "Big Bang Machine," "Wonders of the Solar System," "Stargazing Live," "Human Universe" and "The Infinite Monkey Cage." Naturally, he has also made a cameo appearance on "Doctor Who."
If there's one person who can be credited for making teraelectronvolts and quark jets, well, cool, Cox — winner of the Michael Faraday Prize (2012), named an officer of the British Empire or OBE (an honor bestowed by Queen Elizabeth in 2010) and one of People Magazine's Sexiest Men Alive (2008) — is indisputably it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson answers science questions from the crowd at the Williamsburg Waterfront in July 2011. (Photo: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
Neil deGrasse Tyson
While Neil deGrasse Tyson is the one scientist on this list who has never technically been a true rock star (unless you count his autotuned "Symphony of Science" performance), the Bronx-reared director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History certainly has the swagger, charm, confidence and devoted fan base of one. Needless to say, when it comes to astrophysics and cosmology, Tyson is the man.
A beloved science communicator, prolific author, tireless NASA advocate, Twitter fact-checker and staple of the late-night talk show circuit (and "Jeopardy!"), it's difficult to even begin to describe the numerous accomplishments – some controversial, particularly when it comes to the Pluto planet demotion issue – of this true science maverick who first won acclaim as a gold medal-winning Latin ballroom dancer while an astronomy student at the University of Texas at Austin. (Yep, you read that right.)
Given that Tyson, 55, is so insanely quotable, here's one of our favorites: "No one is dumb who is curious. The people who don't ask questions remain clueless throughout their lives."
You can catch Tyson as host of "Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey," a Seth McFarlane-produced follow-up to Carl Sagan’s game-changing PBS series, "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage." It airs on both Fox and the National Geographic Channel starting on March 9.
Pardis Sabeti (center) with her bandmates from Thousand Days. (Photo: Thousand Days/Facebook)
Deemed as the "Rollerblading Rock Star Scientist of Harvard," by Smithsonian Magazine, Tehran-born geneticist and computational biologist Pardis Sabeti indeed fits the bill: Esteemed Harvard professor and Broad Institute senior associate by day, lead singer and bass player for a Cambridge-based band by night – a former Rhodes scholar who just happens to idolize Kim Deal.
As the Iranian-American frontwoman of alt-rock four-piece Thousand Days — in his piece for the Smithsonian, Seth Mnookin describes the band as sounding "like a spikier, more energetic version of 10,000 Maniacs"— Sabeti is a familiar face around the Boston and Cambridge club scene, a scene where we're guessing there are more than a few scientists, both aspiring and accomplished, moonlighting as musicians. In Sabeti's case, she's also a familiar face around Harvard's FAS Center for Systems Biology, where she heads her namesake lab dedicated to using computational methods and genomics to "understand mechanisms of evolutionary adaptation in humans and pathogens."
"It feels like when I'm the most scientifically active and my brain is churning out ideas, every once in awhile it spits out a melody," Sabeti tells "Nova" when asked about the connection between the two great loves in her life, science and music. She adds: "Science has always felt very innate to me. I love the invention and the creation of research, and I love how my medical degree allows me to help people directly. But it's all a creative process, and I think that's how I became interested in music, too. What links music and science for me is that they're two different kinds of invention. My favorite part of music is writing the melody, inventing new lyrics, and thinking about ways everything will connect."
Greg Graffin performs at KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas at the Gibson Amphitheater on December 2007 (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
For punk rock-worshipping children of the 1980s, it may be difficult to imagine Greg Graffin, solo artist and ferocious frontman of seminal L.A. punk band Bad Religion, in an academic setting. Yet these days you'll most likely find the 49-year-old author of the dissertation "Evolution, Monism, Atheism, and the Naturalist World-View: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology" presiding over the lecture hall, not the mosh pit.
To be fair, Graffin – or @DrGraffin as he’s known on Twitter – has not completely bowed out of the punk scene and continues to record and tour with Bad Religion. However, much of his energy goes toward science education including a recent stint teaching evolution at his alma mater, Cornell University, where he received his Ph.D. in zoology. Previously, he taught life sciences and paleontology at the University of California, Los Angeles, the same school where he earned a master's degree in geology and double-majored in anthropology and geology as an undergraduate.
In 2010, Graffin co-authored "Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God," a tome described as "part rock memoir and part scientific manifesto." He clarified his noted non-religious beliefs to the Denver Post upon release of the book: "I don't bill myself as an atheist but as a naturalist. Naturalism is a belief system. A lot of scientists bristle at that. We all have to believe we can find the truth. Evidence is my guide. I rely on observation, experimentation and verification." He adds: "A fossil is so powerful. It's moving. This is my ancestor. The naturalist is moved by the fossil ... not the cross."
Milo Aukerman performs onstage during the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in April 2013. (Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Perform a Google search for "Milo Aukerman" and you're likely to stumble across two things: photos of a bespectacled young man with cropped hair screaming into a microphone and a Linkedin profile for a research scientist at DuPont who holds a Ph.D. in biology from the University of California, San Diego, and performed post-doctorate research in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. They're very much the same person.
Lead singer – and cartoon posterboy – of massively influential '80s pop-punk outfit The Descendents, Aukerman is now under the employ of Delaware-based chemical giant DuPont, although he does perform the occasional one-off gig (provided he has available vacation days) with the band that launched him into the punk rock canon. Although the married father of two touches down on the relationship between punk rock and science in a 2012 interview with Town Square Delaware – "... punk can be intellectually stimulating, it’s not always aiming at the lowest common denominator" – he does have other things on his mind, namely kid-friendly brewpubs.
In 2012, Aukerman joined Mira Aroyo of British electro act Ladytron (holder of a Ph.D. in genetics from Oxford University), Tom Scholz of classic rock powerhouse Boston (recipient of a master's degree in mechanical engineering from MIT) and others on Popular Science’s list of "7 Musicians We'd Rather See Launched Into Space."
Brian May performs during the iHeartRadio Music Festival in September 2013. (Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images)
And last but certainly not least, a scientist — an astrophysicist, to be exact — who really, truly is a bona fide rock star and a legendary one at that. We're talking about Brian May of Queen, a man widely hailed as one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. Who knew that the man who unleashed "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "Tie Your Mother Down" on the world in the late 1970s would go on to pen a Ph.D. thesis titled "A Survey of Radical Velocities in the Zodical Dust Cloud?" Certainly not us.
Those intimate with the career of May, however, are probably well aware of his keen interest in celestial objects and perhaps have even read his two commercially published works: "Bang! The Complete History of the Universe" (2006) and its follow-up, "The Cosmic Tourist." (Both tomes are best read with "News of the World" playing in the background — at full-volume, naturally). Queen fans and rock trivia nerds also probably know that May began his scholarly pursuit of astrophysics as a student at Imperial College but, as things go, the study of interplanetary dust was forced to take a backseat to rock stardom for a solid 30 years. In 2007, he fully resumed his studies and completed his Ph.D. The following year, an asteroid, 52665 Brianmay, was named in his honor.
In addition to his contributions to the field of astrophysics, May serves as co-founder and ambassador for AIDS charity the Mercury Phoenix Trust and is a tireless champion of animal rights, particularly when it comes to ending the bloody British pastimes of fox hunting and badger culling through his Save Me initiative. He also bears an uncanny resemblance to Sir Isaac Newtown.
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