Above: Brian May, lead guitarist for the rock group Queen, is flying from London to Gainesville to help UF's astronomers pay tribute to a renowned Spanish astronomer.

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Princes of the Universe

Rock Star to Play Supporting Role at Astronomy Commencement Event

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Stars are standard fare in astronomy departments, but this one is sure to win special attention.

Brian May, lead guitarist for the rock group Queen, is flying from London to Gainesville to help UF's astronomers pay tribute to a renowned Spanish astronomer who will receive an honorary doctorate during Saturday's commencement events.

May worked closely with Professor Francisco Sanchez, director of the Instituto Astrofisica de Canarias and a leading architect of observatories on Spain's Canary Islands, on research related to May's dissertation in astronomy in the early 1970s. The guitar player abandoned the dissertation as Queen's success skyrocketed, spending the ensuing years touring with the group and writing songs including "We Will Rock You," "I Want It All" and "The Show Must Go On."

Last year, however, after a 30-year hiatus, May returned to his studies, completing his dissertation and earning his doctorate from London's Imperial College. Besides continuing with Queen — this fall, the band releases its first studio album in 13 years and embarks on "The Cosmos Rocks" tour — May is chancellor at Liverpool John Moores University.

"It's pretty unusual to have a member of rock 'n' roll royalty moonlight as a fully credentialed astronomer," said Stan Dermott, chairman of the astronomy department. "But Brian May is an unusual guy, and he is coming to Gainesville to help us honor a truly extraordinary figure in our profession."

Sanchez is widely respected among astronomers for spearheading the development of major world observatories on the high mountains of Spain's Canary Islands beginning in the late 1960s, a period when Spain was a bit player on the world astronomy scene.

Today, some 25 countries have observing facilities on the islands of Tenerife and La Palma. The Canaries also are home to the European Northern Observatory, considered one of the best astronomy facilities in the world.

"When Professor Sanchez started off," said Dermott, "there were only three or four astronomers in Spain. Now there are three (hundred) to 400."

In an e-mail interview, Sanchez said that in those early years, when the first observatories were being established on the Canary Islands, Imperial College was one of the first colleges to bring astronomical instruments to the site. May, a graduate student at the time, arrived to work at Teide Observatory on the island of Tenerife. The focus of his work was the Zodiacal Cloud, a cloud of dust in our solar system, also Sanchez's area of expertise.

"In his free time, Brian used to play his guitar, but he tried to hide from me 'not to give the impression he was wasting his time,' as he later confessed to me," Sanchez said. "But some of Queen's best songs were composed at the observatory."

Not only did May return to, complete and defend his dissertation last year, he also co-authored a book on astronomy, "Bang: The Complete History of the Universe." Sanchez said the guitarist is a unique ambassador for astronomy. "Since he is a world-famous musician, he can reach the public in a way that no other astronomer can," he said.

UF is a partner with the Sanchez's Instituto Astrofisica de Canarias in the latest big addition to the Canary Islands observatories: The Gran Telescopio Canarias, or GTC, a 31.4-foot telescope that will be largest in its class when ready for observations at year's end.

The $190 million telescope, under construction for eight years, will have the power to spot both extremely faint objects, such as dim planets orbiting bright starts, and very distant ones, such as galaxies located billions of light years away. UF not only owns a 5 percent share in the telescope, it also leads several collaborations designing state-of-the-art cameras and other instruments for the telescope.

The GTC is also at the heart of the connection between May and UF.

That's because Dermott is known for his work on the Zodiacal Cloud. When May found out that Dermott also was present at a GTC ceremony last year, he said he wanted to get together. "We went out to dinner and got on every well, that's how it was," Dermott said.

Sanchez will receive the honorary degree at UF's advanced degree ceremony, set to start at 9 a.m. in the O'Connell Center. At 1:30 p.m., the astronomy department will host a special presentation, open to the public, in Sanchez's honor at the Pugh Hall Auditorium. Slated as speakers are Dermott, Sanchez and May.



Aaron Hoover, ahoover@ufl.edu, 352-392-0186


Stan Dermott, dermott@astro.ufl.edu, 352-392-2052 Ext. 203

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