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
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)
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