Singaporean student Max Zeng, the 'Human Atlas,' leads team to season victory on British quiz show

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Singaporean biochemistry student Maximilian Zeng helped his team to victory on the prestigious British TV quiz show “University Challenge.”

Zeng, 22, and his three teammates, all representing Imperial College London, beat the University of Reading in a close match on the show’s finale on Monday. The win marked the end of “University Challenge”’s 51st season, which began airing on July 12, 2021.

Since the beginning of the season, Zeng gained popularity for his geography prowess, answering some of the most obscure questions within a second of them being asked — often answering before host Jeremy Paxman could finish his sentence.

“Thought to take its name from the practice of lighting fires for signaling, which upland area has Pen y Fan as its highest point?” asked Paxman in the finale. Zeng immediately pushed his buzzer and confidently answered, “Brecon Beacons.” He did not consult with his teammates or look the least bit shaken.

“Brecon Beacons is correct,” the host responded as Zeng looked assuredly towards his teammates.

Throughout the series, episodes focused on different topics, such as literature, technology or science. In the season’s first “picture round,” in which contestants are given a zoomed-in image of a country with the location of a city pinned and asked to name it, Zeng immediately named the places without hesitation. The picture did not give away any of the regions or landmarks of the country.


Zeng single-handedly answered all of the picture round’s map questions correctly.

In an interview with CNA, Zeng revealed that he received his first world map by age 3 and knew all the countries and capitals by age 6, frequenting bookstores with books of maps throughout his childhood. Today, he stares at maps for four hours a day.

“I just think of maps all day,” the champion said, and added that he “[hates] Google Maps.”

Unlike most contestants, Zeng does not like to make flash cards or cram for the quizzes. He said, “I don’t like the concept of a quiz as something that you study for,” and that answers should come out of how much you know based on “your own interests” and “your own ability.”

Social media users praised Zeng with nicknames such as “human atlas” and “GPS Zeng.”

“Zeng is a living atlas,” one user commented on YouTube.

“I’m surprised [Zeng] doesn’t have back pain from carrying the entire round,” wrote another user.

While there is no cash prize, winning “University Challenge,” which is often considered Britain’s most difficult game show to win, comes with “considerable prestige.” Winners also receive a trophy that they get to keep until the following series concludes.

“University Challenge” first aired in 1962 and has close to 2,000 episodes filmed. It currently airs on BBC Two’s network.

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