I was watching University Challenge on Monday, as I do every week, but I got a bit annoyed by one of the questions, so much so that I’m writing about it on here. The question was supposed to be answered to the nearest power of ten, and was about the distance from the Earth to the Moon when given in terms of the Earth’s radius. WolframAlpha will give you the exact answer, but to the nearest power of ten it is one hundred. The team, correctly in my view, answered “one hundred”, but Jeremy Paxman wouldn’t allow it and said that because he’d asked for the nearest power of ten the correct answer was “ten to the power of two”! It annoyed me because it was perhaps the most pedantic thing I’ve ever seen, mathematically, one hundred and ten to the power of two are equal, they are two ways of saying the same thing, the only way they differ is in the way they are written down or spoken aloud. Technically, if he was following the rules to the letter and interpreting them literally, I suppose he was right not to give the points, he did ask for the answer as a power of ten, and literally that means “ten to the power of two” is right and “one hundred” is wrong because only one uses the phrase “ten to the power”. But is that really in the spirit of the competition? To answer the question the team needed to know, approximately, two facts, the distance from the Earth to the Moon, and the radius of the Earth, the rest is simply dividing one by the other. They knew the facts, they got the division right, and they rounded it to the nearest power of ten, which was what they were asked to do. It was infuriating that they didn’t get the points, especially because I’ve seen Paxman accept answers much more “wrong” as correct. He routinely accepts mispronunciations, and quite often accepts answers which are a little bit vaguer than the answer on his card, but he wouldn’t accept “one hundred” instead of “ten to the power of two”!? I’d love to know what he thinks the difference between to two is, because whatever way I look at it, one hundred is still a power of ten. That single question probably didn’t affect the overall outcome of the match, the team were already quite far behind, but I think it did ruffle them a bit, afterwards they only got a couple more right and they seemed to lose all their momentum. That little moment spoiled my enjoyment of one of my favourite programs, I won’t forgive Paxman for a long time.