So this happened on the popular British game show “University Challenge” on Monday, April 2. This game show pits teams of four from various British universities and is a severe test of the breadth and depth of their knowledge of many fields, including mathematics. A contestant’s response to one math question, asking for the seventh row of Pascal’s triangle, took the UK by storm this week (start at the 26:42 mark of the video below).

Twitter immediately went ablaze. Amazingly, a write-up of this encounter made it into the Times of London, one of the world’s most venerated newspapers (as opposed to the tawdry English tabloids). The above link requires a subscription; here’s a photo of page 13 from the April 4 edition:

I must admit that I’m a little amused by the amount of press that this little encounter received. When I was a kid, I memorized the first few rows of Pascal’s triangle simply from working with it so often, so when a family member told me about this story earlier this week, I knew the answer to the question instantly. I suspect that’s exactly what the contestant did here. (Whether I could have gotten the answer right under the pressure of a quiz show and a national TV audience, on the other hand, is another matter entirely.)

I have a theory as to why this appeared to be a mighty feat of mental arithmetic. The audience may have thought that he was adding the numbers quickly, but I’m guessing that the real purpose of the introductory clause “If 1,1 is the second row of Pascal’s triangle…” is to label that row as the second row instead of the first row (following the usual convention of starting the row and column counts with 0.)

I'm a Professor of Mathematics and a University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of North Texas. For eight years, I was co-director of Teach North Texas, UNT's program for preparing secondary teachers of mathematics and science.
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