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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering