Trivia · Word of the week

Word of the week: meniscus

Spoiler Alert: This piece reveals the result of the second semi-final in the current series of “University Challenge”, played on Monday 15 April 2019 between St Edmund Hall Oxford and Darwin College Cambridge. If you do not want to know what happened, look away now, and come back later, maybe when you have watched the show (available on the BBC iPlayer here for the next 27 days).

The latest series of “University Challenge” is reaching its conclusion. The final will be broadcast next Monday (22 April). Earlier this week St Edmund Hall Oxford and Darwin College Cambridge contested the second semi-final. They were, in my opinion, the two strongest teams in the competition, and ideally would have met in the final. If they had done so it would have been the sixth Oxford v Cambridge final in a row. The last time that a non-Oxbridge team made the final was 2013 (Manchester beat University College London).

Edinburgh and Durham, the other semi-finalists, were good teams too but I felt that both Darwin and St Edmund Hall would have been able to beat either of them. Edinburgh secured their place in the final with a fairly comfortable 180-110 win over Durham. The second semi-final was more closely contested. Just before the the last Starter Question, St Edmund Hall were leading 155-145. Jeremy Paxman started to read it out:

“What eight-letter term may indicate both a thin, fibrous cartilage between the surfaces of joints such as the knee and …”

At this point a Darwin team member buzzed in early and said “Ligament”.

It was the wrong answer and the team lost 5 points for an incorrect interruption.

Paxman continued with the question

“… And the curved upper surface of liquid in a tube.”

The St Edmund Hall captain buzzed in with the correct answer: “Meniscus”.

It looked like he was only a split-second behind on the buzzer when the Darwin player interrupted. Maybe he would have given the correct answer anyway, but if he had also taken a punt on “Ligament” his team would have been deducted 5 points. Darwin could have won the match with a correct answer. There was time for one Bonus Question and that was it. The Oxford team won 165-140. Maybe Edinburgh will prove me wrong and beat them in the final but St Edmund Hall have looked likely winners right from the start.

I hadn’t heard the word “meniscus” for a long time before this week. I knew that it was, to quote the “University Challenge” question above, “the curved upper surface of liquid in a tube” but didn’t know that it is also the “thin, fibrous cartilage between the surfaces of joints such as the knee”. For most liquids the meniscus points upwards (or is concave) but for liquid mercury it points downwards (or is convex). O Level Chemistry taught me that, but it hasn’t come to mind too often in the decades since then. For Darwin College Cambridge, “meniscus”, whether it points upwards or downwards, is the difference between a place in the “University Challenge” final and falling at the last hurdle.



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