An image of connective tissue cells with the nuclear membrane stained green and structures containing RNA inside the nucleus stained red. (Image courtesy/The Jackson Laboratory)

An image of connective tissue cells with the nuclear membrane stained green and structures containing RNA inside the nucleus stained red. (Image courtesy/The Jackson Laboratory)

When Beethoven wrote his Third Symphony, considered a turning point in musical history, he did it with only 12 chromatic tones at his disposal. Kurt Cobain used the same 12 tones to write “Rape Me,” which appeared on Nirvana’s third album, In Utero.

Think about that for a second. How different can two pieces of music be?

Now consider this: DNA, the basis for all life on our planet, consists of only four nitrogenous bases. The construction of those four bases (adenine, cytosine, guanine, thymine) means the difference between your father and an earthworm, or your brain cells and your blood cells.

Music and genetics, it turns out, are closer than you think.

That was the message delivered by Edison Liu, a physician, scientist and musician who gave a lecture Thursday night on the art and science of creativity. The event, held at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall, was a fundraiser for the Maine Center for Creativity.

Absent a Beethoven, it was the natural process of evolution –really just a series of genetic mutations that either succeed or fail — that rearranged life’s building blocks in different combinations over the millennia to create new symphonies.

“Only those creatures that have the symphony that works for those creatures actually survive,” said Liu, the CEO of The Jackson Laboratory, the sprawling scientific research institute that landed by “an accident of history” on a well-known island off the coast of Down East Maine.

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Neurons in the brain of a mouse. The green cells are neurons that have been treated to express a yellow fluorescent protein. The blue areas are cell nuclei. The cell bodies are about 1/6 the width of a human hair. (Image courtesy/The Jackson Laboratory)

Neurons in the brain of a mouse. The green cells are neurons that have been treated to express a yellow fluorescent protein. The blue areas are cell nuclei. The cell bodies are about 1/6 the width of a human hair. (Image courtesy/The Jackson Laboratory)

Liu began his lecture where we all started: with homo sapiens emerging from Africa 120,000 years ago to populate the world.

He walked us through early stone tools and the first works of art — stone carvings of women and bison. In each example, tying together the strands of art and science to express to the audience that the two are not dissimilar.

From Stonehenge to Copernicus’ heliocentric blasphemy, Liu argued that art and science are common pursuits. When unknown artists painted animals on the cave walls at Lascaux more than 17,000 years ago, Liu pointed out that not only were these paleolithic humans able to represent reality by painting pictures of horses and bison — in other words, make art. But it also shows they were able to fantasize about the existence of these horses and bison.

Edison Lie, CEO of The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, is also a talented pianist. (Photo courtesy/The Jackson Laboratory)

Edison Liu, CEO of The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, says “science is freedom…and art is discipline.” (Photo courtesy/The Jackson Laboratory) John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Well, scientists do that, too, he said.

“We fantasize with the hope that we can test that this fantasy is reality,” he said.

Artists use their senses — their sight, smell, hearing — to imagine, and then to create art.

“In science, to measure, to detect, is how we sense,” Liu said. “To imagine is to model and predict.”

To drive his points home, Liu punctuated his lecture by sitting down at the bench of a grand piano on stage and playing for the audience. Besides being a scientist, Liu is also a talented classical and jazz pianist.

After the lecture, I asked Liu to expand on the relationship between art and science.

“There’s this impression that art is some freewheeling thing; and there’s this impression that science is rigid. Far from the truth,” Liu said. “Science is freedom, is intellectual and creative freedom, and art is discipline.”

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These connective tissue cells are called fibroblasts. They are some of most common cells in animal connective tissue and play a critical role in wound healing. These cells have been stained to identify the nucleus in blue, tubulin in red, actin in green, and the nucleolus in purple. Each cell is about 45 micrometers across across. (Image courtesy/The Jackson Laboratory)

These connective tissue cells are called fibroblasts. They are some of most common cells in animal connective tissue and play a critical role in wound healing. These cells have been stained to identify the nucleus in blue, tubulin in red, actin in green, and the nucleolus in purple. Each cell is about 45 micrometers across across. (Image courtesy/The Jackson Laboratory)

But what does all this have to do with Maine?

Maine, he argued, has the potential to be a hotbed of creativity — that is, a hotbed of art, science and innovation.

The pursuit of art and science require a certain environment that provides beautiful settings and fosters a creative mindset, Liu said. And Maine has that environment, thanks to its natural beauty, as well as its sparse population and relative remoteness — two things that Liu admits can also be challenges, but ones addressed through web-based tools to promote interconnectivity. Those attributes have attracted artists and scientists to Maine for generations — the existence of The Jackson Laboratory on Mount Desert Island is a perfect example of this.

“In this setting, we can actually take creativity and suffuse it into the community in a unique manner,” Liu said in an introductory video that was played before he stepped on stage Thursday night. “Rather than segregate individuals into artists colonies isolated from society we actually embed artists within the community. The economic vibrancy of the state is going to be dependent on harnessing this creativity, this individual creativity, that we see on a daily basis. In a world where size matters less than innovation and speed and flexibility, we have the components to be a leader. It’s a matter of will and confidence that we can do so.”

After the lecture, Liu and I continued the discussion. So we have the setting, a beautiful state with rocky coasts and idyllic backcountry. What else do we need?

Liu made the case for Maine by invoking the current epitome of innovation central, Silicon Valley.

“We now recognize that putting only money and only technology into a space is not going to support an innovative community,” Liu told me. “Is there a reason why the San Francisco Bay area is such a hotbed for innovation? If you really look at it, all the intellectual firepower was on the East Coast when this all began.”

So why did the focus shift to California?

Stanford? I ask. Hewlett-Packard?

They played a part, but the underlying element that made it all possible…

“Lifestyle,” said Liu, who studied at Stanford between 1969 and 1973. “It was the willingness and the excitement of people buzzing with interest to live in that space — and, quite frankly, I see that in Portland.”

When Liu was at Stanford earning a B.S. in chemistry and psychology, as well as his M.D., he said the area was nothing but orchards.

“This was a no place,” he said. “That’s why I absolutely would refute anybody who says it’s hopeless to start things in Portland or in Maine — that only Boston is the place. That’s fallacious.”

The question really should be: “Is there an environment that supports this kind of freewheeling creativity?”

Elements necessary to create the right environment, he said, are an acceptance and willingness to take risks and, by extension, the embrace of failure as a real option. However, he went out of his way to drive home one point: There must be “a hard-nosed acceptance of Darwinian selection.”

“When the first innovators came about it wasn’t because of some welfare for innovators,” Liu said. “They fought it out in the free market.”

There also has to be an acceptance of people from different backgrounds.

“That’s what Silicon Valley is all about,” he said. “Okay, so you’re a geek, doing something really weird? Who cares. You have no connections? Who cares. You’re not from Harvard? Who cares. Get my drift? I think Maine has that potential if we can go back to some of the fundamentals.”

You can watch Dr. Liu’s introductory video produced for this event: