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6 Rockstars with Lab Coats

Next week, “Secret Life” is unveiling our interview with rock legend Tom Scholz, of the classic rock band Boston, who also happens to be an engineer (more on his fascinating origin story when his profile premieres next week – watch a preview here).

Meanwhile, we’ve discovered that Scholz isn’t the only prominent musician with a side-bar career in a STEM field (or in many cases, a rockstar scientist with side-bar career in music).

1. Art Garfunkel – The Folk Mathematician

Pondering the sounds of subtraction.

This one was news to us. Art Garfunkel has a M.A. in mathematics from Columbia University, where he was a member of the all-male a cappella group, the Columbia Kingsmen. After Simon & Garfunkel took off, he continued to squeeze in coursework between recording sessions and concerts, working towards a doctorate in mathematics education. “I was halfway to my doctorate…But it was schizophrenic and I finally dropped out,” he said.

2. Dexter Holland (The Offspring) – The Biologist Battling Aids

Pretty academic for a punk guy.

Until 2013, many in the mainstream press weren’t aware that the lead singer of the 1990’s punk rock band The Offspring was involved heavily in biology. Then, he tweeted a link to a scientific paper, casually entitled Identification of Human MicroRNA-Like Sequences Embedded within the Protein-Encoding Genes of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The world discovered what we already knew – that Holland is an avid scholar with a Master’s degree in Biology who was well on his way to a doctorate at USC when The Offspring took off. He continues to take baby steps towards writing his dissertation, and is dedicated to eradicating aids. “Imagine a virus is like a car,” said Holland, explaining the paper linked to above. “You want to break the car before you get run over. What I’m trying to do is I’m trying to slash the tires of AIDS.”

3. Gregg Graffin (Bad Religion) – Professor of Punk

Eyes up front, class.

If you’re studying evolution at Cornell University, there’s a good chance that your professor has a background in both zoology and punk rock. The lead vocalist of the punk band Bad Religion has a Ph.D. in zoology and has been known to lecture on evolution, life sciences, and paleontology. How do his worlds overlap? “Science is something that challenges authority in the same way that punk rock,” he told Science Friday. “The thing that kind of sweeps through the last 30 years of punk is this sentiment of challenging authority. And, you know, science can’t really progress if we don’t challenge the currently held view.”

4. Brian May (Queen) – Badger Champion

You may know him as the guitarist from Queen, one of the best-selling bands of all time. England’s badgers know him as their biggest champion. If you know anything about the badger cull drama in the U.K. a few years back, you know that number twenty-six on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time was having none of it.

Badgers, physics, and rock and roll.

May’s offbeat, oddly specific interests are nothing new. When Queen took off in 1972, May was working towards a Ph.D. in physics, studying the light that reflects from interplanetary dust. He left university to focus on his music. 30 years later, he finished the degree as a multimillionaire rock star in 2008, and went onto become the first astrophysicist to perform with Lady Gaga at the VMA’s.

Still, more than music or physics, May says that it’s his animal activism that he would most like to be remembered for. The badgers of the U.K. can rest easy knowing that Brian May is the champion of their world.

5. Brian Cox – Pop Physicist

Brian Cox and his hair.

Brian Cox is one of the most active, visible physicists of our time, and it’s no wonder he’s good on camera. He spent his childhood on the stage as a member of the boy band Dare, until a bar fight in Berlin put an end to that (“It was a proper fight. We were drunk and tired and everyone just jumped on one another.”) Cox shifted gears and started a physics degree at Manchester University. While pursuing a PhD, he joined another band called D:Ream – by accident. “I was filling in for someone,” he said. During this time, Cox spent his days in the lab and evenings promoting the band’s number one hit, “Things Can Only Get Better.” Said Cox: “The students in the lab thought it was really cool to be on Top of The Pops, but there was a lot of teasing from the other side.”

6. Rudy Tanzi – NeuroRocker

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Joe Perry and Rudy Tanzi in GQ.

Rudy Tanzi is a renowned Harvard neuroscientist known for his work with Alzheimers. While being photographed for a “Rockstars of Science” piece in GQ, he bonded with Aerosmith’s Joe Perry over the overlapping principals of both science and music. “We came to the conclusion that the best music, just like the best science, comes from clearing your mind, letting new ideas flow, and not being derivative.” Soon, Tanzi was playing the organs on an Aerosmith album and joining them in performances on Jay Leno. Revisit our profile of Tanzi here.

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Seandor Szeles

    Seandor Szeles is the co-editor of the Secret Life Blog. He is most interested in the human side of science and providing take-away for educators.