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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

Screen Shot 2014-05-14 at 8.30.16 PM
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.

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.

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.

    • Danny Mandel

      You spelled Greg Graffin’s name wrong. =

      • Robyn Bryant
      • anon

        Not to mention also neglecting the fact that they’re (BR) an 80’s, 90’s, aughts, and CURRENT punk rock band.

    • john

      Here’s a good song about that very subject…..

      • john

        “White Coats” by New Model Army

    • Rus Archer

      milo aukerman

    • matley

      What about Milo Auckerman?

    • yousuckatit

      uh- I am pretty sure his name is Greg G*R*affin not Gregg Gaffin

      • Scott Carlin

        YOU…are correct, sir! And they’re not “1990s punk rock” They started in 1980.

    • I’ve known about Queen’s Brian May having a PhD. It’s so groovy to see artists from my generation (80s punk) being into science. Music is based on Sacred Mathematical concepts – the oldest Esoteric and Occult aspects of music – which go back as far as the Egyptians, Persia and ancient Tibetans. The phi Ratio, Fibonacci Sequence and even the Sepherot of Kaballah can be translated musically. The alt rock band Tool is partial to using Sacred Math in their work. Einstein once said, “Music is moving architecture… “

    • kebyar

      John Lydon, marine biology, at least as a hobby.

    • David G

      Boston was a great concert, twice!

    • Redhairred

      And do not forget our beloved Milo Aukerman of The Descendants.

      • Mis H

        Thank you! Took the words right out of my mouth!!

      • A4ffdn

        Yeah…I did once see Greg on MSNBC….they kinda shunned him though

    • Gene

      Les Horribles Cernettes

    • Knuckles Mutatis

      How can an article like this not mention Philip Kramer of Iron Butterfly?! He had a degree in aerospace engineering, and worked on the MX missile guidance system, then later in the computer industry on facial recognition tech, fractal compression, and communications.

    • Jeremy

      how about Tomas Dolby ???

    • stoker187

      Don’t forget about Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter.from Doobie Brothers.Wiki him and see 😉

    • kj

      Denny Dias of Steely Dan has been an architect of Nantucket’s Clipper 5.x xBase compiler.


    • Kinsellajr

      Phil Alvin of the Blasters. Mathematics

    • Havoc Wreaka III

      Ice Cube is an Architect

    • Peter Nieckarz

      Tom Scholz of Boston has an M.S. in electrical engineering from MIT. He holds several patents.

    • Clewin

      No women there, so I’ll toss out Mira Aroyo of the British electronica band Ladytron (PhD in Molecular Genetics). If you haven’t heard of them, they were featured on Christina Aguilera’s album Bionic, and you’ve probably heard of her.

    • Sasha
    • Deacon

      Also James Cassidy of Information Society (remember “What’s On Your Mind?”) is an agriculture professor at Oregon State University.

    • Dave Soukup

      John Tichy of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen is a professor of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.