Tracing the Guitar String Theory of Two Brians

pal·imp·sest
ˈpaləm(p)ˌsest/
noun: palimpsest; plural noun: palimpsests

–a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain
–something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form

What makes a physicist turn into a rock star? What makes a rock star turn back into a physicist? This is the story of two Brians.  One of them you know, though you may not know this part of his background.  The other you might know if you are young and/or hip, or if you wait a few years. Both of them wanted to excel at doing more than one thing. We all have been told we should do what we’re passionate at. But what if you love two things?

This story reminded me of Buckaroo Banzai, star of screen and comics, was billed as an adventurer, physicist, brain surgeon, test pilot and rock musician, saving the world from the invasion of aliens from Planet 10. This awesome movie from 1984 starred Peter Weller as the super cool adventurer.  It always seemed like the most incongruous pair of roles in that list was physicist and rock musician. But though Dr. Banzai was a fictional character, maybe there is something natural that yokes physics and rock’n’roll.

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I must also digress briefly to mention my 19 year old daughter. Since middle school, she has been an avid videogamer and adventurer through the interwebs, able to handle online multiplayer shoot-em-ups while I plod along on the Wii and unafraid of  Tumblr as I peek around on Facebook. Dinner conversation is always peppered with references to Overwatch, Steven Universe, NANOWRIMO, LARPing, Chuggaconroy, Cosplay, and TF2. I mention these not to cloud this post with acronyms familiar mostly to the younger crowd but to establish her credentials.  She knows what is hip, trendy, and growing in popularity.

So, when she mentioned that this band Ninja Sex Party was also linked to Starbomb, sometimes collaborating with Tupperware Remix, and posting on Game Grumps, I can’t say that I paid that much attention. When she mentioned the other day that Brian Wecht was the lead keyboardist from NSP (Ninja Sex Party) and that Game Grumps had over 3 million subscribers, that still didn’t register. When she mentioned that Dr. Brian Wecht left a professorship as a physicist to form NSP, that’s when my Scooby Doo ears pricked up and I got curious.

2007: I give 4 lectures on string theory in front of 200 people at CERN
2017: I shove 69 bras in my pants in front of 3000 people in Orlando
–Brian Wecht, PhD in theoretical physics and lead keyboardist for the band Ninja Sex Party

Brian Wecht bills himself as a theoretical physicist, comedian, and rock musician. As a researcher, he did post doc work at Harvard, the Center for Theoretical Physics at MIT, and the University of Michigan, and he was a Lecturer (Asst Professor) of Physics at Queen Mary University of London for several years. His degree is from one of the leading physics institutions, the University of California at San Diego, and he has expertise in string theory, supersymmetry and quantum field theory.

After a decade of discussing how the universe works with math and explaining it to other people who think about how “tree-level string theory amplitudes can be computed using the BCFW recursion relations,” Dr. Wecht decided to branch out. As physicists musicians do, he formed first one band and then another, and finally teamed up with his friend Leigh Daniel Avidan aka Danny Sexbang to form Ninja Sex Party. In this band, Brian plays keyboards in the character of a silent Ninja. In many of their videos (and apparently on stage), the Ninja may end up blowing lethal darts at other musicians or “destroying things with his mind.” Well, if I were a physicist/musician/ninja, that’s what I would do.

Lest you think this is all obscure or silly, I should point out that their comedy album collaboration Starbomb debuted at #9 on the Billboard Comedy album charts in 2013 and held the #1 spot for four weeks in 2014. The music/comedy is on the raunchy side, something like Andy Samberg’s group The Lonely Island and Flight of the Conchords.

However, in 2016, they produced a serious music album of covers, called Under the Covers, which showcased their obvious musicianship and talent. The album received positive reviews and peaked at #17 on the Billboard 200. Take a listen to the beautiful acoustic version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and it’s clear this group can move beyond parody.

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Wecht’s LinkedIn profile (who else is on both GameGrumps and LinkedIn?) mentions that he has an undergraduate degree in Math and Music and his bio includes roles as both Music Director and Postdoc Researcher. In 2015, as Ninja Brian and Danny Sexbang were recording the covers of songs like Take on Me (originally by A-Ha) and Misunderstanding (Genesis), Wecht was also still co-authoring research papers. Like: Global symmetries and N=2 SUSY published in Letters of Mathematical Physics.

Music is, as after all, sound waves.  Who better to understand sound waves than a physicist? Maybe there is a natural correlation. Maybe a lot of physicists are really rock stars underneath, squeezing in Foo Fighter wannabe garage band sessions after a hard day’s work of calculations.  And, maybe, a lot of rock stars are also really physicists.

Because this Brian’s story reminded me of another even more famous Brian.  I had heard a story like this before.

In the mid 1960s, Brian May received a Bachelor of Science in physics (with honors) at London Imperial College, where he began working on a doctorate in astrophysics. He was interested in asteroids, stereoscophic photography (“My geekiness is bottomless when it comes to stereo,” he told The Telegraph in 2014) and “reflected light from interplanetary dust.”

While he was taking all those measurements on the velocity of dust, he had some free time on the weekends, so he rooted around for some blokes to play music with. He started a band called Smile with friend Roger Taylor and others, though it never quite got off the ground.  Then he met another bloke who had graduated from arts college, Farrokh Bulsara, who had a blazing tenor voice to match May’s screaming guitar licks. This friend —  who changed his stage name to Freddie Mercury — teamed up with Brian and Roger, they located bass player John Deacon and formed the band Queen.

As Queen gained first positive feedback and then monstrous success in the early 1970s, May had to abandon his doctorate to go on the road, on the way to becoming one of the standout guitarists of the coming decades with one of the most successful rock bands in history. (May was ranked #26 by Rolling Stone readers and #2 by Guitar World among guitarists of all time). May was also appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 2005 for his contributions to music. And, the last time the whole world saw him, he was playing thunderous licks at the London Olympics to We Will Rock You and Brighton Rock.

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But Brian May was still interested in velocity dust. Like those who came before and after, Brian wanted to finish what he started. He went back to Imperial College in 2006 to blow the velocity dust off (har-de-har!) his doctoral work and see if it could be resurrected. Amazingly enough, in the 37 years since he started his work, there had been very little work on that particular topic. No one had yet discovered all there was to be discovered, and no one had made his research obsolete. He was able to use recent discoveries from NASA’s satellite around the zodiacal bands to update his data, and he completed his revised thesis in September 2007. A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud allowed him to graduate at last from Imperial College with his PhD in 2008.

He has been appointed a Visiting Lecturer at Imperial College and continues his research with the Imperial Astrophysics Group. He also co-founded Asteroid Day with astronaut Rusty Schweickart, one of the Apollo 9 astronauts,  (Ha! Fun fact – I went to high school with Schweickart’s twin sons who I can certify were geniuses in science and math – although I don’t know if they also became rock stars).

Because of May’s work with asteroids, he had an asteroid named in his honor — 52665 Brianmay.  May has also since appeared on science-themed TV shows like The Sky at Night  and Stargazing Live.  He continues to inspire fans of his music and his astronomy with his promotion of both.

You’re never too old to become a PhD. You’re never too old to become a rock star. There are a lot of morals in this story of the two Brians.

The moral of the story is that physics and musics are natural allies. The moral of the story is that you can be more than one thing, even if both are your heart’s desire and both require diligent study, intelligence, and hard work. The moral of the story is that you don’t have to commit to only one path in your life – whether it’s doctoral work or international fame and fortune as a rock star, test pilot, or brain surgeon. Brian Wecht and Brian May are both still authoring papers. They’re both playing music and continuing to push the boundaries of their art. They’re both rock stars in all senses of the word.

Isaac Newton and Johann Sebastian Bach were contemporaries. Bach’s understanding of music reflected an almost mathematical mind. It makes me wonder whether Isaac Newton also rocked out on the harpsichord…?

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