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21st Sep 2023

Hardest University Challenge question Paxman ever asked stumps thousands – can you get it right?

Charlie Herbert

Hardest University Challenge question Paxman ever asked stumps thousands - can you get it right?

Even by the standards of University Challenge, this one’s a toughie

Long after we leave behind the world of school and university, quiz shows are perhaps the main way that many of us judge our intelligence. And few shows test the intelligence of contestants more than University Challenge.

Every year, the brightest brains from across the UK’s universities compete against each other to decide quite simply which team is the most cleverest – although even the most intelligent folk have brain farts.

First airing in 1962, the show has become famous for its tough questions, iconic theme music, and long-time host Jeremy Paxman’s presenting style.

The former Newsnight presenter hosted University Challenge from 1994 until 2023, when he stepped down following his Parkinson’s diagnosis, and was replaced by Amol Rajan.

Paxman became famous for his no-nonsense questioning, often telling contestants to hurry up and give their answer.

The University Challenge questions can be so hard that many of us would be pretty chuffed to get just one right during a show – but this question may well take the biscuit as the hardest one that Paxman ever asked:

Q: The atomic number of sulfur is 16, what is the sum of the atomic numbers of the four elements whose symbols spell the word snob?

Paxman posed this famously tough question on the series 46 final of University Challenge, which saw Wolfson College, Cambridge take on Balliol College, Oxford for the trophy.

Requiring a pretty in-depth knowledge of the periodic table and a knack for mental arithmetic, this question really tested the contestants.

The first to buzz in with an answer was Goldman, from Balliol, Oxford who answered 37.


Yang from Wolfson, Cambridge then took a stab at 31 being the answer.

Wrong again.

In fact, the answer was 36. The elements that make up the word ‘snob’ are sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen and baron. Their atomic numbers are 16, seven, eight and five, adding up to 36

If you worked that out, then you might have a serious skill for quizzing.

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