Eleven scientific discoveries made by musicians

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Photo of Brian May by Maria Sealey from Pexels

Musicians make us dance, sway, sing along, and tap our feet. But did you know some of them also spend a lot of time studying science? Below are eleven scientific discoveries made by professional musicians, in fields ranging from astrophysics to neuroscience.

1. The planet Uranus

Discovered by William Herschel (composer)

William Herschel was the composer and organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath, England, but in his spare time he made telescopes. His telescopes were so good, he was able to view the night sky in much more detail than anyone had ever seen it before, and Herschel became the first person ever to observe the planet Uranus.

2. Eight comets

Discovered by Caroline Herschel (singer)

William’s sister Caroline Herschel moved from Germany to join her brother in England. She worked as a singer, but William also trained her to help him with his astronomy work. Caroline made several discoveries of her own, including eight comets, and was the first woman to receive an official salary for scientific work.

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Dexter Holland. Photo by opethpainter on Flickr

3. New information about HIV genetics

Discovered by Dexter Holland (lead singer — The Offspring)

When The Offspring became successful, lead singer Dexter Holland abandoned his PhD in molecular biology to focus on music. Years later, he enrolled again, and in 2013 he published a research paper on his work on microRNAs in HIV. MicroRNAs are small RNA molecules that regulate how genetic information is processed within cells. Holland discovered the genetic information for several new microRNAs in the HIV genome that could play a role in the persistent survival skills of the virus. He received his PhD in 2017.

4. A chemical reaction

Discovered by Alexander Borodin (composer)

Composer Alexander Borodin is famous for his string quartets and he posthumously won a Tony Award for the musical Kismet, which was based on music from his opera Prince Igor. But composing was just a hobby for Borodin. His main career was as a research chemist. In his day job, he discovered the aldol reaction — a type of chemical reaction that combines two smaller molecules into a larger one. This process is still used in the production of components of paint, cosmetics, heart medication, and plastics.

5. A new method to analyse materials in detail

Discovered by: Diane Nalini (jazz singer)

Besides being a jazz singer who has performed to audiences that included Bill Clinton and Paul McCartney, Diane Naline has also worked as a researcher in nuclear microscopy techniques. During her PhD at Oxford, she developed a new beam-rocking technique to study strain in alloys, and as an Assistant Professor of Physics at the University of Guelph she studied the structure of materials with a nuclear microprobe that used focused proton beams.

6. A machine to make hydrogen sulfide

Discovered by Edward Elgar (composer)

Elgar was an amateur chemist for a few years, and even had his own home laboratory that he would pop into whenever he needed to take a break from composing. He took his hobby quite seriously, and invented a machine that chemists like him could use to develop hydrogen sulfide on the spot. Hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs, and Elgar’s invention would mean that chemists only had to produce it whenever they needed it. However, despite having had the machine patented and produced on a small scale, it was never commercially available.

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Brian May. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

7. How dust particles move in interplanetary dust clouds

Discovered by Brian May (guitarist — Queen)

Before Queen rose to fame, guitarist Brian May was working on a PhD in astrophysics. He left before graduating, but several decades later May returned to finish his thesis, called A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud. The work is in part based on data he collected at the observatory in Tenerife at the start of his PhD in the 1970s.

8. A gene that plants need to grow flowers

Discovered by Milo Aukerman (lead singer — the Descendents)

Alongside his punk rock career with the Descendents, Milo Aukerman followed a conventional path as a research scientist, first getting his PhD, then doing postdoctoral research, and eventually working as a plant researcher in industry. During his time as a postdoc at University of Wisconsin, Madison, his work was focused on figuring out the details of the way that a gene called LUMINIDEPENDENS tells plants when to grow flowers.

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Ladytron’s Mira Aroyo. Photo by Jazmin Million via Flickr

9. Details about the way bacteria share genetic information

Discovered by: Mira Aroyo (keyboardist and singer — Ladytron)

When E. coli bacteria have damage to their DNA that needs to be repaired, they use a process called “homologous recombination” to share DNA between two individual bacterial cells. As a PhD student, Ladytron keyboardist Mira Arayo was part of a team of Oxford geneticists that uncovered some of the finer details of the mechanisms that make sure that E. coli’s genetic material is correctly distributed between the two bacteria during this process.

10. Visual processing is different in patients with semantic dementia

Discovered by Indre Viskontas (operatic soprano)

Indre Viskontas is an operatic soprano, director of chamber music group Vocallective, and faculty member at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she teaches students how to apply neuroscience to their music practice. She is also part of the Memory and Aging Center at UCSF, where one of the projects she worked on is a study of the way people with semantic dementia process visual cues. Viskontas and her coworkers found that these patients were better at quickly and accurately finding an object in an image than people with other types of dementia, and even slightly better than people with no form of dementia at all.

11. Evolutionary biologists have naturalistic worldviews

Discovered by Greg Graffin (frontman — Bad Religion)

Greg Graffin is not only the frontman of the band Bad Religion, but he also has a PhD in zoology. For his PhD thesis at Cornell University, Graffin developed a survey to ask evolutionary biologists about their religious worldview, and found that most of them described themselves as having a naturalistic worldview.

Writer, science communicator, musician. Find more of my writing at Forbes.com, Undark, Nature, Nautilus, The Scientist, Hakai and other places.

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