Brian May has rocked the world – but can he save it?

Dr Brian May is bringing together science, music and art for the latest edition of his Starmus festival (Picture: Paul Harmer)

Sir Brian May seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. 

Yes, that Brian May, he of big hair and even bigger brains, recently knighted, revered Queen guitarist, astrophysicist and champion of animal rights.

His concerns? Only the future of humanity and planet Earth.

It’s an unsettled May morning, and he is sitting in the storied surroundings of the Royal Society, a building rich in history and frequented by some of the greatest minds of our time. Out the window flags flutter on the Mall, keeping the memory of His Majesty’s coronation fresh in the mind.

But Dr May – he has a PhD in astrophysics and opts for Dr not Sir on his Twitter bio – is focused on the future. In London for the launch of the next Starmus, a festival bringing together science, music and arts co-founded by the rock star, he has dedicated the seventh iteration to issues closer to home.

‘Previously, Starmus has always concentrated on looking out into the cosmos,’ he tells ‘For the joy of it, and the edification of everybody there.

With Starmus co-founder Dr Garik Israelian at the Royal Society launch event (Picture: Max Alexander)

‘But for this particular Starmus, because we’re very conscious that everyone is more aware that the biosphere on planet Earth is under threat, instead of looking outwards, we’re focusing on the problems we face here.’

He reels off just a few potential existential crises.

‘Perhaps the end of our civilisation will be brought about by a nuclear bomb, hunger, pollution, by a loss of habitat, AI, a pandemic,’ says Dr May, genial but solemn. ‘Maybe an asteroid strike, or a cataclysmic eruption of Earth’s magma.’

He is referring to an eruption of the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park that would smother North America and blanket the atmosphere in volcanic ash – although according to the US government, that’s a 1 in 730,000 chance. Phew.

Asked what he thinks the single greatest threat is, he takes time to consider his answer.

‘It’s probably not the one you’d expect,’ says Dr May. ‘I think probably the greatest single threat to life on the planet is the over proliferation of us, overpopulation of the human race.

At the launch of Starmus Earth (Picture: Max Alexander)

‘It’s a difficult subject to broach, because if you start getting into ways to deal with that it gets very unpleasant, but yes, I think we are the cause of most danger to the planet.’

But those are not the words of a Seventies rocker who consigns the worthiness of humans to beneath that of other creatures on account of a reckless disregard for their species. He is as concerned for those less fortunate than himself as for the badgers he so passionately campaigns for.

‘The fact we don’t take seriously the question of making sure every human is fed is a terrible road to go down,’ he says, starkly aware of the fact that many threats caused by humans impact them too.

Is there life out there?

Despite the vastness of the universe, Dr Brian May thinks we could be alone (Picture: Getty)

‘I’ve been unpopular for a long time now by saying I think we might be alone in the universe,’ says Dr Brian May on the astronomer’s conundrum.

‘I know the arguments against that point of view very well. And the more we discover that we don’t just live in a universe that’s visible to us, we live in a much greater universe that we can’t see – and possibly beyond that, in a multiverse, which we can see even less – so the probabilities stack up. 

‘And as we discover more and more planets that look like they might be inhabitable, and it seems like almost every star has a bunch of these things, my point of view gets ever less popular.

‘But I still think we may be alone, and sadly I don’t think we’re going to see any aliens 

‘I wish we could really, I would be very excited to meet one, but I think the possibilities are dwindling, especially when you look at the results of SETI [the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence]. There are some very, very clever people at SETI with some very powerful investigative tools and they’ve found nothing, so the bubble around us which seems to be vacant is growing the whole time.

‘And if there were life anywhere outside our galaxy, there’s absolutely no possibility we would ever find it or see it or be aware of it in any way. We wouldn’t be able to get to them, they wouldn’t be able to get to us.

‘I’m inclined to be a spoilsport and say I don’t think we’re ever going to see any aliens.’

A vibrant character on stage, Dr May is softly spoken as he mulls over his concerns – those which many in his position may never concern themselves with when they could so easily continue to focus on making music for decades.

But as someone who has also spent a lifetime studying the universe, it’s no surprise he has also developed an acute awareness of the Earth’s exceptional place within it.

And while Dr May himself may voice fears for the future, his festival, co-founded 15 years ago with fellow astrophysicist Dr Garik Israelian, promises to be driven by action, ideas, curiosity and constructive debate.

‘We’ve seen conferences between political representatives in search of solutions, but of course they inevitably come up with strategies influenced by their own political biases of the interests of the countries they represent.

With Queen bandmates Roger Taylor, John Deacon and Freddie Mercury in the Seventies (Picture: Chris Walter/WireImage)

‘By bringing together many of the greatest and most free-thinking brains from all countries, we will try to find new answers to the questions we must now ask, to save the life of Planet Earth.’

That may sound very Seventies rocker again, but so have many ideas once thought fanciful that later flourished.

And Dr May is not exaggerating when he says greatest minds. 

Every Starmus has enjoyed a stellar line up – pardon the pun – and this year is no exception. Speakers include no fewer than eight Nobel Laureates, legendary conservationist Dr Jane Goodall, iPod inventor Tony Fadell, Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke and Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees among the 42 speakers announced this week.

Dr Jane Goodall spoke at the event remotely (Picture: Max Alexander)

That’s before considering the music acts, which have yet to be revealed.

All in, it promises to be fascinating and thought provoking few days – even if it is the end of life as we know it up for discussion. But as Dr Goodall says, dropping into the launch event via Zoom, ‘If we lose hope, we fall into apathy – then we’re doomed’.

‘As well as disaster proofing, we can look in a positive way at how we can best enable life on Earth to flourish,’ says Dr May. ‘And perhaps prove that as a species we are worthy to embark on the colonisation of the neighbourhood in space.’

On stage at the O2 (Picture: Jim Dyson/Getty)

Space is something Dr May knows a little about, having spent decades studying the space around the Sun for his PhD while also performing with Queen.

Yet this too provides something of a conundrum when it comes to preserving our planet as we know it. Should so much time, energy and resources be put into exploring new worlds before this one is secure? 

‘That’s a question my wife [the actress Anita Dobson] shoots at me frequently when I tell her how much the Nasa missions have cost, many of which I’m involved in,’ he says. 

With his wife Anita Dobson after being knighted for services to music and charity by King Charles III in March (Picture: Victoria Jones/WPA Pool/Getty)

‘It’s a very difficult question to answer. I think the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is a worthy thing, but yes, I think we should be diverting much more of our resources towards feeding those who can’t have a decent existence.

‘But there are always spin offs with all sorts of unexpected benefits to humanity – there are people looking at growing food in space, that could solve a lot of the world’s problems.’

There are a lot of problems to solve, as Dr May is all too aware. They’re not all his responsibility, even if he appears to have taken on that mantle. 

As a person, a regular person not an era-defining multimillionaire musician, he is burdened by these concerns – as are many, particularly the younger generation.

But far from crumbling under the pressure, in Starmus he has created a powerhouse of motivation, curiosity and hope. 

Starmus Earth: The Future Of Our Home Planet in association with ESET, will take place May 12-17 2024 in Bratislava, Slovakia

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