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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Mozart and the Dinosaurs

    Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  was one of the most famous composers and musicians in history.  He was very well known throughout Europe, about the closest to a pop star that one could be in the 18th century. And yet a story in the New York Times this past week said that knowing exactly what his face looked like is "impossible."
In the impossible search to know exactly what the face of musical genius looked like, researchers in Salzburg, Austria, have made progress. Their subject was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a local boy. 
One portrait long thought to be of Mozart turned out to be someone else. A suspect image was confirmed to be of him. And a third portrait, deemed incomplete, was actually found to consist of a finished piece grafted onto a larger canvas. 
The International Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, announced the findings last month in conjunction with an exhibition of Mozart portraits that opened on Jan. 26 and runs through April 14. One goal, the foundation said, was to burn away idealized conceptions of Mozart — a white-wigged, red-jacketed, romanticized figure — and focus attention on what he might really have looked like... 
The exhibition speaks to a yearning within the living to know the past, by knowing the face of someone whose work lives on so powerfully in our own time. 
“It’s an emotional question,” Ms. Ramsauer said. “Mozart is such a universal genius. Everybody knows him. Everybody takes part of his life.” 
Research done before the show altered assumptions held for decades.
  Compare that with this article published in the Times last Spring:
Fossils discovered in northeastern China of a giant, previously unrecognized dinosaur show that it is the largest known feathered animal, living or extinct, scientists report. 
Although several species of dinosaurs with feathers have already been uncovered in the rich fossil beds of Liaoning Province, the three largely complete 125-million-year-old specimens are by far the largest. The adult was at least 30 feet long and weighed a ton and a half, about 40 times the heft of Beipiaosaurus, the largest previously known feathered dinosaur. The two juveniles were a mere half ton each... 
“This is a great time to be a dinosaur paleontologist,” said Dr. Norell, whose research concentrates on fossils from China and the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. “The feathered dinosaurs show how the whole conception of dinosaurs has really changed in the last 15 years.”
    Mozart died only 222 years ago and was one of the most well known persons on earth at the time, and yet there is a cottage industry built around discovering what he looked like. There are false leads, "idealized conceptions" of his appearance, and recent research has changed "assumptions held for decades."

    On the other hand, fossils of a creature that purportedly lived 125,000,000 years ago are flatly stated to "show that it is the largest known feathered animal, living or extinct... The adult was at least 30 feet long and weighed a ton and a half, about 40 times the heft of Beipiaosaurus, the largest previously known feathered dinosaur. The two juveniles were a mere half ton each." For an animal that predeceased Mozart by 124,999,778 years, one gets the impression that the New York Times might admit one of these dinosaurs into its corporate offices on its own recognizance while Mozart was fishing around for some ID at the security desk.

    Although the dinosaur story does go on to throw in some caveats ("apparently", "possible", and "probably",) the initial matter-of-fact tone of the writing is striking. I believe the first paragraph holds the key: "scientists report." Scientists are the modern-day oracles. In the post-modern world, the pronouncements of "science" are the closest to "truth" that our society recognizes. Until those pronouncements change.  As the closing line of the story says, "the whole conception of dinosaurs has really changed in the last 15 years."  And there's no reason to believe it won't change just as much in the next 15 years.

"Lucy"
    So while our children are bombarded with images of dinosaurs in textbooks and TV documentaries that are presented in near photographic detail, the appearances of actual humans, even very famous ones, who lived before the invention of photography remain somewhat mysterious.  However, at least it suggests some rather amusing imaginary scenarios.  Picture the New York Times Christmas party and the security guard at the door admitting guests. "'Wolfgang'? Is that your name, or the name of your band?  You said you're a musician, right?  Let me call upstairs and see if anyone recognizes you - look up at that camera, OK? - Hold on just a minute...  Lucy! Hey, how are you? You haven't changed a bit!  What's it been, three, three point five million years? Say, you don't know this guy, do you? No? Well, Lucy, head on up.  I've got to take care of Mr. Mozart here. Apparently no one knows this guy from Adam."

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