Strangers & Brothers: The Affair

Opened Apr 2015

Updated: 9 Apr 2015
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The Affair is one of C P Snow's best-known books.

The title is a reference to L'Affair Dreyfus, which split French society in two. Snow's affair may be on a smaller scale, but it pretty much splits the unnamed college where it occurs in two.

In the novel, an unpleasant bit of work called Donald Howard has been dismissed from his fellowship for scientific fraud. A photograph that is a vital bit of evidence has been shown to be faked. However feeling grows in the college that an injustice has been done.

The fraud occurs in "A paper of Howard's, published in collaboration with his professor, an eminent old scientist now dead" (p18)and "...this photograph became the decisive experimental evidence in Howard's Fellowship thesis, and later in his published paper. This led me to believe that 'Howard's Fellowship thesis' was his PhD thesis, and he had committed fraud twice. The later paper cannot have been his PhD thesis because these are not done in collaboration. Looking into the usage of the words 'Fellowship thesis' it is apparent that as normally used it gets you a fellowship but is a lesser thing than a PhD thesis. To quote Trinity College, Cambridge "It is not necessary for a Fellowship dissertation to be in the fully polished form required for a doctorate." The conclusion is that Howard would have submitted his PhD thesis after his fellowship thesis, and so it looks as though scientific fraud has actually been committed three times. When Lewis is first hearing about the case, there is no mention of the PhD.

All the action of The Affair is college-based, but it occurs to me that the University might have something to say too. Cambridge University is in a sense composed of the colleges, but it is the University that awards degrees. I would have thought that Howard was right in line for having his PhD cancelled, but there is no hint of this in the book, and no hint that Howard's behaviour has implications outside his college, apart from damaging its reputation. I do not pretend to be an expert on how Cambridge University goes about cancelling PhD's, or indeed if they have ever done it at all; my research has yielded absolutely nothing and I certainly wouldn't get a PhD for it. However, it seems unlikely that faced with what appears to have been a piece of deliberate fraud, which has already brought unfavourable international comment, the University would just sit on its hands and do nothing.

The other point that puzzles me is that a PhD thesis is supposed to give evidence that you have learnt how to do research and can be trusted to do it without supervision. Howard, even if he is totally innocent of deliberate fraud, seems to have demonstrated the opposite; he has accepted a crucial bit of data and used it without any checking of his own. If I were a fellow concerned, that alone would put me off having Howard in my college.

Snow says in the preface "For the scientific fraud, I have drawn upon the picturesque case of Rupp". Before the internet this would have been a tough one to track down, but now the misdeeds of Emil Rupp are there for all to see in Wikipedia. Rupp is also mentioned in the text on p19, as is the J-phenomenon, an even more obscure scientic controversy that only squeezes into Wikipedia as the last reference on the page on Pathological science. There is a book on the J-phenomenon.

Page numbers refer to the Penguin edition of The Affair published in 1962.

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