A mathematician at The Table

Enrique Gracián is a mathematician. He studied Pure Sciences at the University of Barcelona and has spent much of his life teaching at university and secondary school. What has always interested him most, however, is problem solving. “The creation and solving of problems,” he emphasises, “because the history of mathematics is based on the creation […]

Enrique Gracián is a mathematician. He studied Pure Sciences at the University of Barcelona and has spent much of his life teaching at university and secondary school. What has always interested him most, however, is problem solving. “The creation and solving of problems,” he emphasises, “because the history of mathematics is based on the creation of problems.”

Man, when he imagines, is a prince, and when he reflects, is a beggar.

–Hölderlin

 

The greatest contribution by mathematicians throughout history, in contrast to widespread belief, has not been to solve problems, but to create them.

Enrique’s curiosity always led him towards “the nature of the problem and the nature of the solutions to the problem.” This led him to apply this methodology to the teaching of mathematics and now he takes care of “using mathematical methods to solve problems outside the field of mathematics, that is, scenarios that have nothing to do with this science”.

The first image that usually accompanies this explanation is that of Enrique using a written formula to help a company in its decision-making process. But that image is wrong. What he does, in fact, is to apply “mathematical thinking”. “Thinking by people who after three thousand years mulling over ideas in their heads have achieved some really interesting techniques for problem-solving,” he says.

Q. What is your role at The Table?

–The creation of this agency is a problem. I will try to clearly define its conditions because a well-considered problem always leads to the solution. That’s the first step, consider it well, and then see what possible solutions there are. This is very closely linked to the whole process of creativity at elBulli. I will be analysing it with my tools: white boxes and black boxes.

Q. What is creativity for you?

–Creativity is a process in which something new is produced without our having the faintest idea how it occurred. This is what is colloquially understood by creativity. And this means that creativity depends on the person who has produced it, on very idiosyncratic and artisanal conditions.

However, one of my goals is to change this. Creativity should be turned into a method so that it can be used by groups of people who have not previously been described as creative.

Q. How can mathematics help creative people? Sometimes they seem like very different concepts, but in reality they are very close.

–Yes. Mathematical thinking, contrary to what many people believe, is a natural thought process. It is a natural process in humans, like rhythm. It is something that is inherent in us. Children, for example, quickly capture rhythm. Our natural way of thinking is very mathematical even if we do not realise it. Harnessing that natural tendency is very useful when it is channelled properly. Mathematicians generate problems from results that have been obtained previously and thus develop a technique to ask the right questions. This is what I would like to apply at The Table.