Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Things can only get better: the rock stars of science and why radical career changes can pay off

Published 30 July 2013 07:35, Updated 01 August 2013 00:45

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Things can only get better: the rock stars of science and why radical career changes can pay off

A ‘rock star’ twice over, Brian Cox has helped bring the science of physics to a new audience.

When I saw that UK scientist Brian Cox is touring Australia next month for An Evening of Scientific Phenomena, I started humming “Things Can Only Get Better”.

It is not just that he is so warm and engaging in his television programs and that I thoroughly enjoy having the seemingly impenetrable world of physics explained in his Lancastrian accent. There is also something of the rock star about him.

So, no surprise to find he has actually been a rock star, as the keyboard player for D:Ream in the early 1990s.

They had a No. 1 hit in the UK with Things Can Only Get Better , which was used as an election anthem by New Labour. You should click that link and play it. It really does put you in a great mood on a weekday morning.

I’m not sure if he plans to use his musical skills on his national speaking tour – but it is a moot point because all of his gigs are sold out, except Canberra, as I write this.

Cox is a particle physicist, professor at the University of Manchester and works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, near Geneva – when he is not working on his TV science programs.

He is proof that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a radical change in vocation. When D:Ream disbanded in 1997, he was almost 30 and completed his Doctor of Philosophy in high-energy particle physics at the University of Manchester.

Cox has spoken of his desire to popularise science, harking back to the 19th century, when scientists were regarded as celebrities.

“Why wouldn’t you want academics to be celebrities?... Of course I want science to be part of popular culture like that again,” he told London’s Daily Mail.

“It’s the way you get people interested in scientific ideas.”

From Queen to astrophysics

Cox is not the only rock star to make a career in science. Nor is he the only Brian.

Those with impeccable musical taste will already know I am alluding to Brian May, guitarist, vocalist and keyboards for Queen (cue: Bohemian Rhapsody for your listening pleasure).

May earned a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College in 2007 and served as the 4th Chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University from 2008 until 2013.

May took 26th place in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 greatest guitarists and has an asteroid (52665 Brianmay) named after him.

Earlier this year, May explained his scientific interest to a group of children: “There was a lot going on when I was growing up, for the first time a man stood on the moon… I think it’s the greatest mystery and I can’t fail to be enchanted about finding things out about the solar system, the galaxy, the whole universe,” reported the BBC.

In another example, one of the world’s greatest singer-songwriters, Art Garfunkel, was studying for his doctorate of mathematics through the peak of folk duo Simon & Garfunkel’s success.

He also took some months off in the early 1970s to teach maths at a private school in Connecticut, before releasing the Greatest Hits album. To hear his voice at its best, try Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Other not so well-known scientist/rock stars are:

  • Greg Graffin: singer/song writer for punk band Bad Religion has a masters degree in geology and a PhD in zoology. He teaches at UCLA and Cornell universities.
  • Milo Aukerman: Singer for punk band The Descendents, he has a doctorate in biochemistry and alternates between spending time on the band and undertaking research.
  • Dan Snaith: Performs electronic, psychedelic pop dance music under the name Caribou. He has a PhD in mathematics.
  • Mira Aroyo: Singer with electropop band Ladytron, she also has a PhD in genetics from Oxford University.
  • Diane de Kerckhove: A Rhodes Scholar with a PhD in materials science and is an assistant professor of physics at the University of Guelph. She is a professional jazz singer under the name Diane Nalini.

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