Quizzes in the Goldilocks Zone

On the challenges of pitching quiz questions just right

At the pub quiz - “What is a hyperbola?”

Among those of us around the table were three mathematicians, wondering what definition they were looking for…

A conic section? Something like y=1/x? Yet we only have space for a few words… “A curve” turned out to be the mildly disappointing answer on the sheet. But after discussion with the quizmaster, our answer of “Two separate curves” and a little sketch which was close enough to the image she found in the Wikipedia article got us the point. (Not that it mattered, we weren’t winning either way - that month, at least!)

Image of a hyperbola

Image by Wikimedia Commons user Ag2gaeh and published under a Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0 licence

I still admire the design of the quiz at the university’s Invariant maths society where, in a parallel competition for question-setters, participants were also invited to contribute 5 questions - and scored points based on how well they split those answering. (A question which everyone got right, or everyone got wrong, scored little - a question which half the participants got right scored the most.) But a question like “When I tosssed a coin this morning, did it come up heads or tails?” or “When pi is written in binary, what is the 100th digit?” might have been frowned upon!

(That seems far more elegant than BBC Radio 4’s “Brain of Britain” listener-contributed questions, where the contributor gets a book token prize if the contestants can’t answer the questions. The tricky thing to do for a quiz is setting questions which are not too hard, and not too easy, but which - for distinguishing contestants - are just right!)

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