Brian May in Exeter today – citation and acceptance speech


10 July 2007

Brian May in corridor, Exeter Uni
Brian May at Exeter University

Brian is in Exeter today and after lunch received on Honorary Doctorate from Exeter University, in a ceremony which commenced at 2.30pm.

The morning session which featured an interesting address, towards the end by Yusuf Islam, is already archived. The band break into We Are The Champions at the end of the proceedings.

Brian May today received an Honorary Doctorate of Science Honoris Causa from the University of Exeter on the first day of Exeter’s Summer Graduation ceremonies, presided over by University Chancellor Floella Benjamin, OBE. The morning session saw Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his humanitarian work and improving understanding between Islamic and western culturan Honorary Doctorate

Shortly after 2.30pm, and according to Ade Edmondson – after a liquid lunch – the afternoon graduands entered the hall and took their places on the platform. Everyone was welcomed and then the presentations began. Honorary Degrees were presented to Sir Robert Owen, judge (LLD), Anthony Gibson, Farmers Union (LLD), Ade Edmondson and his wife, Jennifer Saunders, separately both receiving Honorary Doctor of Letters, and both delivering most enjoyable acceptance speeches.

Between the Honorary Awards, many new young graduands of the Univesity filed across the stage, as their awards and names read out, to be presented to the Chancellor.

The last of the Honorees of the day was Dr Brian May, who received Doctor of Science. Professor Tim Naylor read an entertaining citation, followed by Brian receiving his scroll from Dr Benjamin. After much applauds, she invited Brian to say a few words….

Transcripts of the citation and acceptance speech follow. After the proceedings, the platform guests left the stage to the strains of a brass band, who played a series of marches and, as they had done in the morning, but more appropriately after Brian’s ceremony – “We Are The Champions”.

Many congratulations to Brian and his fellow honorees.



Exeter University Graduation Ceremony
10 July 2007

Brian was the last honorary graduand to receive his doctorate this afternoon, preceded by Ade Edmondson and Jennifer Saunders, who both gave entertaining speeches about their life and work.

After the citation for Brian by Professor Tim Naylor, University Dr Chancellor Floella Benjamin invited Brian to give his address:


“I now call upon the Public Orator, Professor Tim Naylor, to present the Honorary Graduand.”


“Brian May…..


I wish all my lectures started like that.


Brian May is one of the world’s leading rock guitarists, so those of you who’ve been doing an analytical study of the programme may be wondering why on earth Exeter is giving him the degree of Doctor of Science.

Well, let me start by attempting to answer the question.  I’d like you to imagine interviewing the 18-year old Brian May for a place to read on an undergraduate Physics course.  His burning interest in Astronomy would be clear.  This is the boy who frightened the neighbours by standing in the middle of the road at night to see an object that was rising in the east.  The neighbours assumed he was a burglar.  He’ll need that sort of enthusiasm to carry him through the course.  But, he’s built a guitar and a telescope and uses them both.  So, he’s a practical bent, which is always a good indicator, and, he’s got musical ability, which so often goes with Physics or Maths.  The will to succeed in such outside interests is a good indicator, provided they don’t take up too much time.

And finally, it’s clear there’s a formal intellect there.  He has good ‘A’ levels in Maths and Physics from Hampton Grammar School.  I suspect, but I don’t know, that you’d also detect a certain style there – style, combined with the precision of a mathematician.  I think we’d let him in.

Unsurprisingly therefore, Brian May won a place at Imperial College to read Physics and from there went on to do a PhD, studying the dust between the planets.  This may sound a dry, academic study, but it has its roots in a very important problem – the problem of how the planet that you’re sitting on today coagulated from dust around the early Sun, how those particles stick together, and why the resulting boulders don’t smash themselves apart.  It’s still an area of active research, closely related to the star and planet formation research, which we carry out here in Exeter.

But returning to Brian May’s PhD, he found music was increasingly cutting into his time.  For example, he served on the Entertainments Committee.  This was no small-time venture though.  They booked the Albert Hall for people such as Jimi Hendrix to come and appear.  At the same time Brian May was playing in his first band, Smile, but then with Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury and John Deacon, the band that became Queen.

In the end, the combination of teaching Maths in a Comprehensive School, writing up a thesis, and playing in a band that was on the bring of breakthrough was too much, and Brian made a choice to drop the Astrophysics.


His best-known contributions to Queen are as writer, vocalist and lead guitar.  His songs include “We Will Rock You” which has become an anthem, though not the anthem he chose to play on the Palace roof – that’s another story.   As a vocalist  he not only contributes to the distinctive harmony of the group, but also some of the lead vocals.  His guitar solos have a real drive and precision to them.  As anybody knows, for example, “I Want To Break Free” can testify.  I choose this one as an example, because of the way Deacon’s lyrics are driven home by accompanying video.  Brian May puts in a memorable performance in a pink dressing gown, curlers(!) and the most amazing pair of slippers – a certain style to match the drive and precision of his guitar playing.

With Queen his work includes the solo album “Back To The Light” in which “Too Much Love Will Kill You” shows his real versatility, in addition to winning an Ivor Novello Award.

But Brian May has never managed to break with Astronomy.  He still uses his telescope, oh, and the guitar, his famous Red Special.

About 10 years ago he struck up a friendship with Patrick Moore, who persuaded him to take seriously the idea of co-authoring a book on Cosmology.  Such books popularising Science are crucial.  Not only do they encourage  more people to take up Science, but they also spread scientific understanding to a more general audience in an increasingly technical age.  The resulting book, simply called Bang! is written in an extremely informal style, with the deliberate aim of engaging a new audience.  Very often such an approach can lead to glib partial truths.  Not here though.  Scientifically, the descriptions are very precise.

The third author of the book is Dr Chris Lintott, who describes Brian May’s constant questioning to find rigorous analogies like being in a 3-year long Viva, with a particularly tenacious examiner.   To the professional eye, that effort shines through. 

Thus, for demonstrating precision, this time not in a musical sense, but in that enduring academic quality of rigorous argument, and combining it with style – style which could only come from one of the world’s greatest rock guitarists, Chancellor, it is my honour to present Brian May with a degree of Doctor of Science Honoris Causa.”


I would now like to invite Dr Brian May to address the Congregation. Brian.



“Oh Lord, the moment they all dread.

To follow Ade Edmondson and Jennifer Saunders is of course an impossible task. I’d like to thank you, Prof, for a wonderful oration. Thank you to the University of Exeter for this GREAT honor. I resisted the temptation to make notes ‘cos I wouldn’t have been able to read them anyway, so I have to speak from the heart and all I can say is, “It’s a funny old life.” I’m quoting my lovely wife in saying this.

I’d like to say to all you parents, congratulations, cos I too am a parent and I know what its like. I know what it takes out of you to raise a child from the cradle to the point where they receive a degree. Fantastic. Well done.


But they won’t appreciate it yet, but that’s okay.

But most of what I have to say is to you guys, the graduands. I think they really should’ve put you down in the front in the expensive seats. Seems a little unfair to me, cos this is your day. And as an old guy, none of us can resist giving a little bit of advice, so I’ll try.

I know what it’s like to slave away at a degree for three years. Strange enough I’ve just done it again, following the book that we published I got kind of inveigled back into Astronomy full-tim, so for the last 9 months I’ve done nothing except slave over my PhD, which is now written up, thank God.

But there are times when you really want to give up. There are times when you go “Why on earth did I take this on?” So congratulations to all of you for getting through those times. I know you all have and it’s a great achievement.

The only other thing I’d have to say would be, the rest of what you have to do, you’ve just learned so much at University of Exeter. The rest has to be learned in the University of Life, and sometimes its not that easy and its difficult in different ways. It seems to me that if you work very hard for something and you get rewarded, you might make the mistake of thinking that it’s always that way.

Well, not always. It’s not always that straight forward. Very often you might feel that you are in total control of your life, but not so. There are so many things which will come into all of your lives which will probably completely capsize you and push you off into another direction, and all these wonderful, best laid plans, will suddenly go by the board and you’ll find yourself sailing on a different sea.

It’s happened to me many times. My life has been anything but smooth. I stand before you today, I guess a symbol of success in some ways, because you have given me this great honour, but life has taken me to very many dark places as well as to many FANTASTIC, joyful places, and it seems to me the secret is to always just play the cards that are in your hand to the best of your ability and take advantage of what comes to you, accept what comes to you, find JOY in what comes to you, and make it into something great. I have to say that most of the great things in life are very scary, and this is included.

I have to say we all feel very nervous, coming up and accepting an honour like this, and you notice that most of the mature graduands don’t take their caps off cos they’re afraid of what their hair’s gonna look like.



(Applauds as mature graduands on platorm take their caps off – Brian takes off his own cap, shakes hair and laughs. Audience laughter, cheers, whistles.)

OK. I’d just like to say to all you graduates, please join me in putting a big fist in the air. A big punch in the air. God bless you all and may all your dreams come true.”

(Brian sits down. Long, loud ovation.)


Ah …. we couldn’t have a more kinder, more generous person joining our extended family. Thank you for all the good work you’ve done, Brian, and than you for honouring us today. In fact I thank all our Honour Graduands for joining us today.