Your starter for 10...Where is the student who taught politicians how to handle Paxman?

Tom Peck hunts for Alex Guttenplan, star of University Challenge

It is the favoured technique of the celebrity caught in the roasting heat of the media spotlight (just ask Tiger Woods) – retreating to the ocean waves, beyond the reach of all but the most unhinged paparazzi.

So this weekend, as reporters descended on a tidy family home in north London, Alexander Guttenplan, 19, was merrily cutting his way through the grey waters of the English Channel, sailing and laying low until Monday night, when the most significant day of his short life will be broadcast on national television.

Mr Guttenplan, a natural sciences student, has captained his team from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, to this year's final of University Challenge and, much to his surprise, has become a pin-up in the process.

For this there are three reasons. Firstly, he is very clever. He appears to be as comfortable answering questions about quantum mechanics as he does responding to queries about the Bible. He is also cute – he has that Harry Potter thing going. And finally, he has revealed Jeremy Paxman's Achilles' heel: politeness. In the early rounds, when the caustic quizmaster, in all his self-appointed powers of omniscience, branded one of the student's answers "a good guess", Mr Guttenplan retorted, understatedly, "It wasn't a guess", leaving Paxman floundering. In so doing, the teenager succeeded where dozens of Cabinet ministers have failed.

Breathless websites have been set up where "Guttenfans" declare their faith: "Guys want to be him, girls want to be with him." Typical comments include: "I think I love you. If you are in any way available, please contact me immediately."

If it were ever possible to rehearse for a quiz that, so far as the majority of the population are concerned, might as well be conducted in Klingon, the Guttenplan breakfast table would not be a bad place to begin. Guttenplan Junior is not even the brainiest member of his family. His father DD Guttenplan, a renowned journalist, film-maker and intellectual, holds degrees in philosophy, English literature and history from three different universities and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Alexander's mother, Maria Margaronis, also a journalist, writes for The Nation, The London Review of Books and translates Greek poetry.

A university friend said yesterday: "Alex likes sailing anyway and he just wants a breather. The media have been knocking on the door."

He will apparently pull into harbour on Monday afternoon before heading off to meet his three teammates to watch the pre-recorded programme broadcast of BBC2.

Mr Guttenplan, described by his father as a "shy, cerebral son", has had to content with little hype in Cambridge, only the occasional titter in lectures if he now gets something wrong. His new fame once saw him approached in a student nightclub, although he generally seems happier as "chairbeing" of the Cambridge University Science-Fiction Society, and a member of the Cambridge University Ceilidh Band.

His academic prospects blossomed after he was withdrawn from state education. He had "taught himself to read" at the age of three, when the family were living in Brooklyn, New York, before moving to London. But his state school was stifling him, the Guttenplans decided. "Cosmopolitan, relatively leafy and filled with urban energy, our new home was also, we soon learned, an educational desert," his father recalled.

"Islington's failing schools were notorious, but a visit to one of the more successful primaries was just as dismaying. The deputy head was gracious and articulate. The students were sparky, polite and full of potential. However, when we walked into what would have been our son's class the teacher looked at us and cried, 'Not another child!' "

The state school was, according to his father, "starved of resources and squeezed by the national curriculum ... there seemed little room for creativity."

So he was packed off to the fee-paying Westminster School, where, "instead of regarding his ability to read as a licence to ignore him, they encouraged our son to do all the things that came less easily, from drawing to football to drama," Mr Guttenplan Snr added, admitting his middle class guilt that "small classes, excellent teachers and a challenging curriculum have given him a superb education".

Among Mr Guttenplan's female fans, there are no doubt many who hope to see a University Challenge trophy on display in his bedroom.

Are you as smart as Alex? Questions he got right

1. Who argued for the theory of evolution of species in the 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker?

2. According to the Book of Exodus, Amram and his father's sister Jochebed are the parents of which prophet?

3. What period of time is 11 days shorter than the solar year?

4. Which Scottish Island gives its name to the 93 chess pieces discovered there, right?

5. International Books Day is held annually on or about 2 April, which is the birth date of which children's author born in 1805 in Copenhagen?

6. At its brightest, which planet can reach an apparent magnitude of -4.7 in the earth's sky?

7. In the Schrödinger equation of quantum wave mechanics what quantity is represented by "h"?

8. King Thibaw was the last king of which country?

9. What is the highest two-digit number, both of whose digits are primes?

10. Named after a Dutch physicist born 1865, what is the splitting of atomic spectral lines in a static magnetic field?

11. The flag of which North African state features a green device sometimes known as Solomon's Seal on a red background?

12. Which region of north-west India and Pakistan has a name meaning five waters?

Answers:

1. Richard Dawkins; 2. Moses; 3. The lunar year; 4. Lewis; 5. Hans Christian Andersen; 6. Venus; 7. Planck's Constant; 8. Burma; 9. 77; 10. The Zeeman effect; 11. Morocco; 12. Punjab

What happened to...University Challenge stars

*Gail Trimble (2009)

Dubbed "The Human Google" after answering more questions correctly than any other contestant, ever, she won with Corpus Christi, Oxford, but the team was stripped of the title when it was discovered it had fielded an ineligible player. The men's magazine Nuts attempted to persuade Ms Trimble to pose naked in a photoshoot, sending a Facebook message to her brother. He replied: "Seriously mate, would you give your sister's contact details to Nuts?" She is now a fellow at Cambridge University.

*Luke Pitcher (2002)

Won with Somerville College, Oxford. Now a classics lecturer at Oxford. Says: "I'm very happy being clever. In fact, one of the abiding pleasures of my life is the things my mind can do."

*John Authers (1987)

Captain of the University College, Oxford team that racked up the highest score in the show's history (520), but lost in the final. Now a Financial Times columnist.

*David Lidington (1979)

Won with Sidney Sussex, Cambridge. He later became a Conservative MP and is now shadow minister for foreign affairs.

*Aubrey "Larry" Lawrence (1968)

Captained Keele's only winning team. Four years on, won Brain of Britain.

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