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Rule #51: NCIS and Beethoven’s Skull

Posted in Blog by Elizabeth Neeld

The last show of the season for NCIS was the proverbial cliffhanger. Gibbs is in a mess…mix a Mexican drug cartel, a potential killer walking into Gibbs’ father’s shop in Pennsylvania, and a colleague’s finger showing up in a box…the show has everything to call you back next September. It even has something that we very seldom see. Everybody who watches NCIS knows that Gibbs has rules. But it isn’t often that we actually get to see Gibbs making up a new rule. But one of the last images of this final episode shows Gibbs writing something on a small piece of paper and putting the paper into his narrow rectangular memento box. The writing reads:

#51 Sometimes You’re Wrong!

Now to Beethoven.

Wait! Beethoven?

This is a mashup if there ever was one. How far does one have to fetch to bring a suspense television show and a 19th century composer into proximity?

Well, actually, not all that far. Not if one also read the recent New York Times article that announced in the headline: “Beethoven May Not Have Died of Lead Poisoning, After All.”

It seems that at least for thirteen years—ever since scientists tested the composer’s skull and hair—acute lead poisoning has been considered a likely cause of death. Maybe he drank too much plum wine sweetened, in the manner of his time, with lead to hide the bitterness. Maybe he chewed too much on his pencil while he wrote his music.
No, as of last week, lead poisoning is suddenly not considered to be the cause of death. A scientist from Mount Sinai School of Medicine, using new and more sophisticated measuring techniques and a larger piece of skull, surprised everybody in the Beethoven world with these findings: Yes, there was elevated lead per gram in the skull. But, no, not any more than one would expect in a man of Beethoven’s age.

So for thirteen years the generally accepted cause of death for one of our favorite composers was lead poisoning. Now nobody knows what killed Beethoven. The explanation that for more than a decade was right is now wrong. As one writer put it, “Few things look as unstable as the rock-solid certainties of previous ages.”

So here we are.

Gibbs—long into his criminal investigative career—has to write a new rule.

Biographers and musicologists—long at ease with a cause of death for their beloved Beethoven—are “back to the drawing board.”

And there we have it:

Rule #51
Sometimes You’re Wrong

It does make room for life-long learning, doesn’t it? And, let us hope, for at least a modicum of increased humility.




Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights to anyone whose life is in a time of transition, change, grief and loss of any kind. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

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