cheryl’s birthday - now there’s a challenge

The winning University Challenge team, featuring former Ballymena Academy student Michael Taylor
The winning University Challenge team, featuring former Ballymena Academy student Michael Taylor

Among the few little oases of pleasure I have when I sit down to watch television (and if the males of the house haven’t already hogged the remote control to watch football, golf or any other sport) is University Challenge.

It was the final this week - Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge beat Magdalen College Oxford by 255 points to 105. By the way, the winning team featured a young man from Co Antrim, Michael Taylor, studying for a PhD in History, whose former teachers at Ballymena Academy must be very proud indeed.

University Challenge is a show that has always fascinated me, beginning way back in the days of my childhood when Bamber Gascgoine, the original presenter of the programme, was asking the questions.  Firstly, I was intrigued by his remarkable name (there weren’t too many Bambers at my school) but mostly it was the convoluted and rambling, seemingly ridiculous questions that were asked and that made no sense at all to me.  How anyone could be expected to know the answers to any of those things, I had no idea.  But then I would have been about seven years old at the time, and was working my way through the complete works of Enid Blyton. 

Perhaps because of my early wonder of the programme, I am secretly delighted when I get a question right.  And I regularly surprise myself with the random pieces of otherwise pretty useless information that could be the answer to one of Paxman’s starters for 10. 

That’s the thing about University Challenge – a question on Homer’s Iliad or Fermat’s Last Theorem could very easily be followed by one on The Famous Five or Ed Sheeran lyrics and I’d be first to buzz with those last two. It’s the maths questions that make my head hurt.

So a puzzle doing the rounds in the media has had me completely stumped. It’s all about Cheryl’s birthday and two friends who have to figure out the date it falls on by making a series of correct deductions from the scant information she has given to each of them.

It’s an incredibly difficult logic problem that was put to high achieving teenagers in Singapore whose students are top of the international league tables for maths. They must be, to figure out that one. I read the answer and I still don’t understand it.

They say it’s the way maths is taught in Singapore that makes the difference, where there is a clear approach in the way it’s explained and understood, but where crucially, they have a positive attitude towards the subject and their whole curriculum is based on problem solving. Here, many of us seem to be proud of the fact that we can’t do maths as we stand up and declare we’re rubbish at it. But one expert said if we could see how maths can be useful in everyday life, maybe we could inspire and motivate more children to enjoy it.

I wish I’d had a teacher like that because while most of the nation is trying to figure out when Cheryl’s birthday is, I’m thinking what kind of twisted mind does Cheryl have that she doesn’t just tell them the date of her birthday? Doesn’t she want cards and presents? Why risk nobody turning up at your birthday drinks, Cheryl, because they can’t figure out what date it’s on?

The more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t know, as someone once said.  Exactly who, I don’t remember, but it would make a great starter for 10.