Thursday 5 February 2015

A Rum Affair: A True Story Of Botanical Fraud by Karl Sabbagh

A Rum Affair: A True Story Of Botanical Fraud
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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. 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 second 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 in 1900?

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

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