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A Rum Affair: A True Story Of Botanical Fraud Paperback – August 7, 2001


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Take a garrulous old university professor with a knack for making extraordinary (and highly suspicious) botanical discoveries, a scientific community becoming increasingly skeptical of his claims, and an amateur botanist keen to find out the truth, and the stage is set for an absorbing tale of scientific chicanery and academic intrigue.

Professor John Heslop Harrison of Newcastle University was one of the most respected and knowledgeable botanists of the first half of the 20th century. His greatest passion was for the plants of the Hebridean islands off the west coast of Scotland. He came to believe that some of the islands' plants were survivors from a time before the last Ice Age, a theory bound to be controversial given that the last advance of the ice sheets extended well south of mainland Scotland. In support of his theory, Heslop Harrison began to report sightings of plants that no one had ever seen on the islands before, and the botanical community started to get suspicious. Were the plants really where Heslop Harrison claimed they were? If so, how did they get there? Could they really have survived on the islands since the last interglacial? Or had the wily old professor carried the specimens to the Hebrides from their sites of origin and planted them?

Karl Sabbagh relates the shady tale of John Heslop Harrison in his highly engaging book A Rum Affair (Rum is the name of the Hebridean island where Harrison made many of his most extraordinary--and suspicious--discoveries). Sabbagh examines the thoughts, actions, and motivation of Harrison and his academic enemies with great aplomb, and goes on to explore how some scientists are driven to the belief that fakery can be in the interest of science. Sabbagh's writing style is sometimes dry and detailed, as befits the treatment of a rather touchy subject, but the book is also laced with absorbing anecdotes and wry humor. It's a winner in a popular history of science genre that is becoming a bit overpopulated these days. --Chris Lavers, Amazon.co.uk --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Class warfare in British universities! Wholesale deception in top research journals! Sedge grasses covertly transplanted to islands in the Inner Hebrides! Clearly fascinated by this long hushed-up scandal in a quiet field, Sabbagh (Skyscraper: The Making of a Building) has produced a fluent, attentive and compact chronicle of scientific deception and detection. Newcastle University's John Heslop HarrisonAa confrontational man and a coal miner's sonAascended to the top of U.K. plant science in part on the strength of unusual grasses that he and his students "discovered" on Scotland's Isle of Rum. The classical scholar and expertAbut amateurAbotanist John Raven found in the late 1940s that Harrison had brought the unusual species to the island in order to later claim credit for finding them there. The "discoveries" supported Heslop Harrison's theory that parts of England and Scotland retained plant species from before the last Ice Age. Wanting to avoid a public controversy, Raven never published his clearest indictment of Harrison, instead making his evidence known to others in charge of classifying plants. The Heslop-Raven controversy could bear all sorts of sociological glosses: did it set a hardworking professor from the provinces against a privileged Oxbridge amateur? Or an arrogant professional against a diligent, careful outsider? Did it show how science can police itself, or how collegiality lets coverups go on? Sabbagh considers all these aspects of the case as he sketches the two men's personalities and those of many other relevant characters. Sabbagh's final chapters consider parallel frauds in other scientific fields, presenting credible explanations for how a few scientists steeped in the codes of their profession perpetrate outright fraudsAand how other scientists get taken in. (July)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: True Story of Botanical Fraud
  • Paperback: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; Reprint edition (August 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306810603
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306810602
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,185,703 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By rpk on July 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The topic of the book is: did Professor Heslop Harrison, who was an eminent British botanist during the first half of the 1900s, fake some of his results? This might sound dry, but the book is not. Sabbagh has written an engaging story about the effects of ego on scientific inquiry. As a scientist-in-training myself, I found the story fascinating. Why would someone with an established reputation take such a risk? Or was he merely persecuted by jealous colleagues, as he claimed himself? Why did the scientific community react as it did? As well as detailing the history involved, Sabbagh explores the psychology of the main characters in an attempt to find an answer. The specific scentific issues are explained clearly and concisely. He includes a section briefly discussing other scientific frauds that lends more depth to the analysis of this particular case. This is a good book, funny, and very well written.
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Format: Hardcover
Science makes progress by the innovations of individuals. Upon noticing something new, others try to replicate the results. When they do, scientists start to feel confidence that reality has been established. When the results cannot be replicated, doubt begins to build. Sometimes, the innovator made a mistake. Sometimes, the emulators don't quite understand what needs to be done. And occasionally, the innovator made up the results in the first place (like the little boy who cried "wolf").
This book focuses on parts of the career of Professor John Heslop Harrison of Newcastle University, who was a famous botanist in the British Isles during the first half of the 20th century. Over his career, he had discovered or been present when many rare species had been found in new places. While many of these discoveries were replicated by others, many of the ones he made on the private island of Rum (also spelled Rhum) in the Hebrides did not have that replication. Some botanists became suspicious, and encouraged a talented amateur botanist, John Raven, to inveigle an invitation to Rum to see the specimens. What he saw led Mr. Raven to conclude that someone (possibly the good professor) had planted these specimens on Rum, rather than occurring there naturally. Based on these researches and a letter to "Nature," the professor's discoveries that others could not document were gradually withdrawn from the scientific literature.
The book looks at the whole problem from our time now. The author interviewed people who were alive and participating in the controversy then, as well as examined the documents and letters involved. He turns up a series of questionable "discoveries" also including butterflies and beetles that suggest a systemmatic pattern.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By H. Hardman on May 10, 2002
Format: Hardcover
The merest possibility that a geographic botanist would actually falsify a discovery and violate the sanctity of the British scientific aristocracy is not only enough excitement for one book, but plenty for a sensational story. However, you might have to be an unabashed fan of all things Anglo like myself; also perhaps a talented amateur horticulturist who thrills to the details of the growing conditions necessary for the disputed "discoveries" of J. Heslop Harrison (the names of the characters alone make this a fun read). Sabbagh navigates the touchy territory of real peoples' reputations with great subtlety and renders a fascinating picture of the British universities, their scientists and personalities. Of course there is no silly confrontation scene! All the drama is handled with typical British restraint, which makes the book and this true story all the more enthralling for the right type of reader.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Gerry Fahrenthold on November 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
If this is the greatest excitement in the history of geographic botany, I pity every geographic botanist that is, was, or will be. Geographic botany is the study of the distribution of plant species. In practical terms, a geographic botanist spends her time looking for plant species in new locations.
The Rum Affair is the story of a well known botanist, Heslop Harrison, who supports his theory that ice age plants may have survived on Rum island in the UK by reporting unprecedented discoveries of plants on the island. Rum island is very isloated and Heslop Harrison indirectly controls all access to the island. Isnt that convenient ?
A ametuer with no offical standing as a botanist, but with considerable expertise, gains access to the island. He finds no evidence of any of the reported species in situ. In addition, he finds that the soil, climate and related plants indicate that it would be a virtual impossibility for some of the reported plants to have lived there.
The ametuer confronts Heslop Harrison who is unable to answer any of the accusations. When the findings are made public, the academic community, which didnt believe Heslop Harrison to begin with, is mostly mute. With time, Heslop Harrison's " discoveries " are dropped from offical texts and the incident is forgotten.
I wish there were more to it, but that is it. There is little mystery and no real suspense. A suspected fraud is uncovered and then quietly forgotten. There is no dramatic contfrontation between the rivals who primarily communicate via the post. Heslop Harrison is unable to refute the charges of fraud and primarily goes on about being betrayed. The muted reaction of the academic community to the uncovering of a suspected fraud is typical, even for today.
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