A Rum Affair

Karl Sabbagh. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2000.

A true scientific detective story that is enjoyable and exciting, while managing to say quite a lot about what science is, and how it should be done. Half a century ago, John Raven, an upper class British classics scholar and Master at Kings College, Cambridge did a nice bit of detective work. It started as a lark, but Raven’s questions gradually grew into a full-fledged investigation. Raven, an avid amateur botanist, grew to suspect — an eventually prove — that a distinguished British professor of botany, Heslop Harrison of the Royal Society, was a fraud. Harrison, Raven discovered, had introduced alien sedges on the Hebridean island of Rum in order to advance Harrison’s pet theory that plants from before the ice age had survived in Great Britain. After writing a fiery report detailing Harrison’s fraud, Raven sealed it in his college library! Sabbagh, reading Raven’s obituary, saw a brief mention that Raven had produced a damning unpublished report about “ a reputable biologist,” and this book is the result. It is a marvelous look back at science in Victorian times, when class meant a great deal more than it does now. At a deeper level, it offers a vivid dissection of scientific fraud. A short, wonderful book.

Dr. George Johnson