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A Rum Affair: A True Story Of Botanical Fraud Paperback – 8 Aug 2001


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Product details

  • Paperback: 300 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; Reprint edition (8 Aug. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306810603
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306810602
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 1.7 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 617,425 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Karl Sabbagh was born in the UK and educated at King's College, Cambridge, before joining the BBC as a documentary producer and director. During a television career spanning thirty years he made a range of factual programmes for British television channels, as well as for the Public Broadcasting Service in the USA. Some of his TV series were also the subjects of books, including 'Skyscraper', '21st Century Jet', 'Magic or Medicine?' (with Rob Buckman) and 'Power into Art.' In 2000 he turned to full-time book writing and has covered topics such as scientific fraud, mathematics and psychology. He is the son of a Palestinian father and has written two books on Palestine: 'Palestine: A Personal History', and 'Britain in Palestine.'

Product Description

About the Author

Karl Sabbagh earned his degree at King's College, Cambridge, before joining BBC Television. He is the author of five books, among them The Living Body and Power into Art. He lives near Stratford-Upon-Avon.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 14 Jan. 2001
Format: Hardcover
The mysterious Isle of Rum off the west coast of Scotland is the site of British botanist, John Heslop Harrison's discoveries of rare plant species which helped make him the outstanding scientist of his time. Many botanists, suspicious of the evidence, were unable to prove anything as all investigations were buried deep in a university library.
A Rum Affair is not simply an investigation about one particular gentleman in one particular field of science, it is about the history of amateur scientists, the times in which they lived & the clashes of egos in the arcane corridors of British universities during the 100 years in which Charles Darwin's theories shocked the world & scientific hoaxes were the talk of the town.
Be prepared for a humorous & learned read. Set a match to the fire, put the kettle on & the cat out, brew a pot & settle back into your highback wing chair because A Rum Affair will take you to one of the most bleak, treeless, monotonous places on earth where a handful of mysterious & rare plants were "discovered" in the 1940s & were never seen again.
A Rum Affair is for everyone who loves a good yarn about the humans who trample upon the natural world & the lengths to which they'll go to become immortals in their field! Fascinating! Do visit my site for my full review.
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I love this book and thoroughly recommend it. It is very detailed and I can imagine some might feel that it is rather overladen with detail. But the detail is necessary to do justice to the complexity and seriousness of the question of whether or not the eminent British botanist John Heslop Harrington committed science fraud by importing and seeding the field of scientific discovery with species of plant, beetle and butterfly in order to claim the unique discovery of their unexpected capture on the Scottish isle of Rum.

This is a scholarly book that is accessible to anyone of keen intellect with a tolerance for balanced evidence weighing, genteel writing and good manners. The author - Karl Sabbagh - has crafted his work well and written a gem-strewn masterpiece of the rare "did he do it?" science fraud genre.

Despite giving over many pages to assess the obvious bias of his accusers, it is rather clear, I think, before we reach the end of the book that Sabbagh is certain his protagonist - Professor Heslop Harrington - at least committed some of the science frauds he was accused of.

I must admit that after reading one sentence on page 93 that thereafter, and right to the end, I suspected a twist in the tale would be produced where we would learn that the Professor was in fact exonerated by the author's own discovery. But such heroic new evidence does not come.

Consequently might I beg a breach of etiquette and wonder whether perhaps, if this review is ever drawn to his attention, Karl Sabbagh could use the comments section below it to answer a simple question.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Douglas Alwyn Luke on 20 Sept. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a well-researched account of a likely scientific fraud by J W Heslop Harrison, a Professor of Botany in the North of England, who apparently transplanted specimens to the island of Rum and later 'discovered' them as new and unusual finds. The book also throws doubt on the published results of an experiment performed by the professor to show that chemical induction of mutation caused the white form of the peppered moth to become darker in industrial areas. It was on the basis of this experiment and other work that J W Heslop Harrison gained election to the Royal Society in the 1920's.
The book reads like a good detective story and is highly recommended to those with or without a scientific background.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 29 July 2004
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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 12 reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
I enjoyed this book. 31 July 2000
By rpk - Published on Amazon.com
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.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
A Real-Life Mystery Examined Through Circumstantial Evidence 20 Mar. 2001
By Donald Mitchell - Published on Amazon.com
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. In a final amusing aside, he visits the professor's home and is amazed to discover that the postal address he used for it is false. He chose to pretend he lived on the most fashionable street in town, when he did not.
The circumstantial evidence (and it is hard to have more, unless you see someone literally planting the specimen) does get a bit tedious, but the author does a nice job of considering the motives behind scientific frauds. Generally, they are tied to a desire to make a big breakthrough, and the "scientist" is convinced the theory is right . . . even though the evidence don't show it yet. In Professor Heslop Harrison's case, he wanted to build a new theory of the evolution of species and also wanted to change the view about how the last ice age had occurred in Britain. These "discoveries" tended to support those theories.
The book's approach is quite a thorough one, and since Mr. Sabbagh is not a botanist he makes the book more understandable to those of us who are not. He also as a wry sense of humor that makes for comic relief throughout the book.
On the other hand, reading exhaustively about weeds, beetles, scientific controversies, and whether the samples were received or not is dull. Although well written and fascinating for its broader implications, the writing style left my mind wandering a bit. If the book had been written to about 70 percent of this length, it would have been more appealing. Many of the letters could have been edited down or included in the appendix material. I graded the book down one star for being cumbersome in this way.
As to what really happened, no one will ever know for certain. Certainly, the weight of the evidence suggests to me (a nonscientist) that sloppiness at least was involved in some cases, and possibly conscious fraud. If no one ever turns up these specimens again (and they haven't in decades in some cases), the preponderance of the evidence will favor their never having existed naturally in the sites claimed.
Where else do we rely on claims that are hard to substantiate? How can we defend against "false" claims occurring? My mind is drawn to SUVs as an example. Many people originally bought these believing that they were safer alternatives to smaller vehicles. No one discouraged that view. Recent statistics suggest that people in SUVs are more likely to be injured than people in some smaller cars. How could a misperception like this have been established, and how could have been allowed to persist? It seems like some people will pay with their lives, as a result.
Look for independent information, well verified by others who have no vested interest!
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
clearly not for everyone 10 May 2002
By H. Hardman - Published on Amazon.com
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.
7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Botany - Not quite as exciting as Stamp Collecting 1 Nov. 2001
By Gerry Fahrenthold - Published on Amazon.com
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. The fraud is an embarrasment to the scientific community and everyone benefits from a quick and quiet end. Only when big money or big law suits are possible to academic frauds make headlines. Can you name the scientist at Texas A&M who " discovered " cold fusion a few years ago ? I can't either, and that was a potentially world altering discovery.
The Rum Affair would make an interesting article in Scientific American or a nice short story. There just isnt enough here to make a book. If you see it at the used book store, buy it, read the two middle chapters, and donate it back to library.
I have a question for the author: "But what about possible seed contamination via soils imported from the mainland in 1900?" 24 May 2014
By Dr Mike Sutton - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I love this book and thoroughly recommend it. It is very detailed and I can imagine some might feel that it is rather overladen with detail. But the detail is necessary to do justice to the complexity and seriousness of the question of whether or not the eminent British botanist John Heslop Harrington committed science fraud by importing and seeding the field of scientific discovery with species of plant, beetle and butterfly in order to claim the unique discovery of their unexpected capture on the Scottish isle of Rum.

This is a scholarly book that is accessible to anyone of keen intellect with a tolerance for balanced evidence weighing, genteel writing and good manners. The author - Karl Sabbagh - has crafted his work well and written a gem-strewn masterpiece in the rare "did he do it?" science fraud genre.

Despite giving over many pages to assess the obvious bias of his accusers, it is rather clear, I think, before we reach the end of the book that Sabbagh is certain his protagonist - Professor Heslop Harrington - at least committed some of the science frauds he was accused of.

I must admit that after reading one sentence on page 93 that thereafter, and right to the end, I suspected a twist in the tale would be produced where we would learn that the Professor was in fact exonerated by the author's own discovery. But such heroic new evidence does not come.

Consequently might I beg a breach of etiquette and wonder whether perhaps, if this review is ever drawn to his attention, Karl Sabbagh could use the comments section below it to answer a simple question. My question relates to what Sabbagh tells us on page 93 about"Kinloch Castle" built on the island or Rum by the wealthy George Bullough in 1900:

'The estimated cost of the castle is said to be more than $20 million in today's money. Bullough thought nothing of importing red sandstone and soil from the Scottish mainland and workmen from Lancashire to build the house and establish the garden.'

About the last of those two sentences, I'd like to ask Karl Sabbagh the following questions:

Could the unexpected varieties of plant and butterfly that the Heslop Harrington and his associates found on Rum have been accidentally introduced by George Bullough importing their seeds and pupae in the said imported soil? Moreover, did Bullough also set up a fashionable garden water feature or dig a grand pond - complete with imported water plants from where foreign water beetles could so easily have have migrated to the islands lakes? What plants might have come to the island with the Lancashire gardeners?

Why was this Bullough Contamination Hypothesis not examined in your superb book?

Mike Sutton 24th May 2014
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