May 5, 2008

Dr Brian May Speaks For Dr Francisco Sanchez


By Karen Voyles
Sun staff writer
May 4, 2008

Photo by Brandon Kruse/The Gainesville Sun

Queen guitarist Dr. Brian May speaks Saturday afternoon at Pugh Hall on the University of Florida campus during a ceremony for Dr. Francisco Sanchez, who received an honorary doctorate from the Department of Astronomy.

Rock fans around the world know Brian May as the star guitarist of the rock group Queen. Astronomy fans inside Pugh Hall at the University of Florida Saturday know Brian May as a professor with a keen interest in, and understanding of, the motion of dust in the solar system.

"My dad used to say to me 'It's nice that you're playing music but one day you're going to need a proper job,' " May said "I just thought 'It's never going to happen.' "

The guitarist's visit was among the highlights of a weekend of commencement ceremonies that continue today. About 6,200 students - of the 8,675 set to graduate this semester - will participate in their commencement ceremonies throughout the month, most of which were slated for this weekend, depending on the college.

With more than 2,000 students receiving bachelor's degrees, the College of Liberal Arts and Science's two ceremonies Saturday at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center were by far the university's largest.

May, who completed his doctorate in England last fall after a 30-year break in his studies, is still touring with Queen. He flew to Gainesville Saturday to see his mentor and close friend, astronomer Francisco Sanchez, receive the first honorary degree ever bestowed by the Department of Astronomy.

May had been working on his doctorate with guidance from Sanchez in the mid-1970s when May's rock career took off and he set his studies aside.

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While introducing May to the audience Saturday, Stanley Dermott, professor and astronomy department chair, noted how pleased his own 90-year-old mother-in-law in England had been when May received his degree last fall.

"When she heard on BBC that Brian May had received his Ph.D. she said 'Oh good. That will give him something to fall back on,' " Dermott said.

Despite the years rolling by after May left school, Sanchez would encourage him not to give up on his research, serving as what May said was his primary inspiration to eventually complete his doctorate.

"Every time I saw (Sanchez) he said, 'You can still do it,' " May told the audience of astronomers and undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students. "Over the years I would talk to him and feel guilty and I said to him that I felt like a bit of a fraud because I hadn't been an astronomer in 30 years. Then he told me he hadn't been doing astronomy for 30 years either - that he'd been doing administration."

Sanchez received his honorary degree in part for the work he has done to make Spain and the observatories on the Canary Islands major players in the world of astronomy.

When Sanchez began his work, Spain had a handful of astronomers. Today that country is home to between 300 and 400 astronomers, drawing more than two dozen countries who have built observing facilities on the islands of Tenerife and La Palma.

Sanchez is also credited for spearheading construction of the world's largest optical telescope. The University of Florida is a 5 percent owner and partner in the $190 million Gran Telescopio Canarias.

May has agreed to write a special piece of music to be performed with Queen when the telescope opens.

Commencement for students receiving professional degrees are scheduled for later this month.

The Levin College of Law's ceremony will take place on May 9, the College of Medicine's on May 17 and the College of Dentistry's on May 16.

The university's final spring ceremony, for graduates of the College of Veterinary Medicine, is set for May 24.

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