Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Eine Kleine Wissenschaftmusik

You are going to sterilize that iPod aren’t you?--Doctors tending to Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon are using a little of the supernatural to help bring Sharon out of his medically induced coma--Mozart. Sharon, for all his reputation as a paratroop general and the bulldozer of Israeli politics is a pushover for classical music (second only to raising sheep), so the doctors told Sharon’s sons to play his favorite music in the hospital room. Mozart has been going on non-stop. Whether Sharon can actually hear it is not known. He has not reacted, which doesn’t mean much because he doesn’t react much to anything at the moment. I vote that it does, at least in a subconscious way. I hope when--and if--he wakes, they ask him. I’d love to know the answer. When I’m on my death bed I want to go out with Mahler. No point going quietly. The Ninth and the Second please. Mozart would make me cry--unless I’ve been at it for a while.

Which brings us to the science part of this blog--the Mozart skull. First of all, this is the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Happy birthday, Wolfgang even if you are dead. Mozart’s musical genius has been the subject of considerable scientific speculation. The fact he could sit at a desk and have gorgeous, perfect music spew from his brain in unstoppable torrents is one subject. Scientists like Einstein adored his music for its beauty and its fearless symmetry. A lot of people could write great music, but one man so much so fast? How is that possible? In “Amadeus,” the great Peter Shaffer play, the Salieri character blames God for being unfair and dumping so much creativity into one brain, but that’s a supernatural answer, not a scientific one. Another question, which actually is important scientifically, is how could such a prodigious genius come from ordinary parents? (Leonardo is another example, by the way, the bastard son of a peasant girl and an insignificant minor nobleman). You get into genetics and statistics. Whatever. Which brings us to the skull.

Mozart died of something or other at the age of 35 in 1791. Rumors speculate he was murdered (Shaffer playfully sugests it was the jealous Antonio Salieri) but we don’t know. He was dumped in a pauper’s grave in St. Mark’s cemetery in Vienna. (Sometime in 1855, the grave-site was supposedly identified and there is a plaque there now.) In 1801, a gravedigger named Rothmayer, uncovered a skull in the grave which he said was Mozart’s. The skull has been in the possession of the Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg since 1902. Is it Mozart’s? They decided to test it using DNA sampling and brought the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab into the picture. If it was Mozart's perhaps there might be a clue in the brain pan to how he did it, or maybe a hint of why he died so young. They took samples from thigh bones of skeletons believed to be Mozart’s maternal grandmother and a niece and tested them against a tooth in the skull. The answer--drumroll...

We still don’t know. The thighbones turned out to be totally unrelated and probably unrelated to Mozart as well. Doesn’t matter. The more important scientific question is how the hell did he do it?

[The skull picture is an AP photo. The portait of Mozart is by Edinger, 1790]


HB said...

Even if sound pedantic, shouldn't it be "kleine" instead of "Kliene"?


Joel Shurkin said...

And corrected, thank you.