Gilead Amit, the student storming University Challenge

Four languages and all the answers: Gilead Amit’s performance on University Challenge handed victory to Imperial and humbled the Oxford college that had rejected him

Four languages and all the answers: Gilead Amit’s performance on University Challenge handed victory to Imperial and humbled the Oxford college that had rejected him

Fingers on buzzers: Which Israeli-born student captained his team to a thrashing victory on University Challenge this week? Answer: 20-year old Gilead Amit.

A physics undergraduate at Imperial College, London, Gilead astonished viewers as he led his team almost singlehandedly to a second-round victory over St Hugh’s College, Oxford, to land a place in the quarter-finals.

Gilead, who speaks four languages was the top points scorer in the 280-80 trouncing, shown on BBC Two on Monday.

He was born in Caesarea but spent most of his life in Switzerland, where his father is general secretary of IEC, the international standards body for electrotechnology.

He said: “My father left complicated physics books, just out of my reach, tempting my curiosity, when I was young. Everbody thought I was going to study history or English but I discovered that both my history and English teachers had studied physics as undergraduates, so it made me realise that physics is a very good base for everything.

“I like to think of scientists as being more acquainted with the arts than artists are with the sciences, because it is much easier for us to learn about politics than it is for historians to learn about quantum mechanics. I do have external interests, and my parents were very good at encouraging that.”

His interests run to more than physics. He is President of Imperial’s drama society and was part of the team which won the Guardian’s Student Newspaper of the Year award last year.

So when Jeremy Paxman asked which poet wrote the lines: “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine — Unweave a rainbow”, Gilead correctly answered, John Keats.

“This was something that my English teacher was very fond of quoting at me, making me have to defend the sciences, explain why science can do a lot to explain nature, and why it is not the opposite of art but can do a lot to enhance the things we see around it.

“Jeremy Paxman was very professional and very friendly. He would come back stage to the green room at the end of the day and talk to whichever team members were brave enough to approach him.

“What one doesn’t see at home is that he and Roger Tilling, the announcer, spend the downtime flicking elastic bands across the studio at each other.”

Gilead, who holds dual Israeli and Swiss citizenship, has military duties in both countries but has been granted a waiver because he is studying. He has not yet decided if he will join the Israeli army or continue studying. Educated at the International School of Geneva, Gilead moved to London to take up his place at Imperial, having been rejected by St Hugh’s College, Oxford, which he admits made Monday’s victory even more significant.

The key to his team’s success? “A tremendous amount of luck. You have to know things and be interested in things but at the end of the day, it’s about how fast your opponents are and if the questions are up your street or not. Fortunately, we were very lucky with the questions. There were some that we had practised the night before.”

There is now the alluring possibility of a match against north London’s Alex Guttenplan, the captain of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, who has guided his team to a substantial win against University College London. Alex, 19, is a natural sciences student. His parents, DD and Maria, are joint correspondents at The Nation. DD is the author of The Holocaust on Trial: History, Justice and the David Irving Libel Case.

The BBC has not yet scheduled the screenings of the remaining rounds, which have already been filmed. Nor would they reveal which team makes the final, due to be aired in April.

Last updated: 5:08pm, December 3 2009