RIP Sir David MacKay

Many people have been paying tribute to David MacKay, who died on Thursday, and I would like to add my own voice. He was an extraordinary man who contributed so much to physics and wider societal issues during his tragically short life. Although I never worked directly with him, nor even interacted with him much during the many years we worked in the same department (Cavendish Laboratory) in Cambridge, nevertheless somehow his character pervaded the world around him and made us all more aware of the importance of finding ways to communicate beyond our own communities.

David was appointed a lecturer at the Cavendish in 1995 having been in Cambridge for a while by then. I must have been involved with his appointment because I have a clear memory of the then head of department telling me how he was astonished by how many people, external to the department, had been telling him that we really must appoint David because he was so exceptional. At that point his main work was in computational studies for the analysis and transmission of information. But his applications were wide-ranging and touched on people working in a variety of different departments across Cambridge. We did indeed appoint him and he was quickly promoted, becoming a professor in 2003. He stood out always by his exceptional teaching (making Bayesian statistics – I think the title of the course was formally Inference – into one of the most popular option courses for our undergraduates was, I always felt, no mean feat.

He did many things on the side. I would highlight the development of some software he called ‘Dasher’, which enabled severely disabled people write text on a computer using their eyes alone. I saw him give a lecture demonstration once – and it was the kind of thing one never forgets. Added to which, when I chaired my department’s REF panel, it was one of the Impact Case studies we submitted. It was characteristic of the man that he absolutely refused to patent anything he did. The software he wrote was open source (and free), he was passionately determined about this, and it meant it was available for anyone to modify if they saw a need. I cannot now remember the quantitative data I must have had regarding the usage when this was being written up for the REF (and since I write this in an airport I cannot dig around to find it even I had retained such information). That wasn’t really the point in his eyes. The programme existed. For certain people it might have a transformative effect on their lives and that was sufficient.

Beyond the reasons he outlined in his own book, I don’t know what prompted him to start analysing energy production and consumption. But anyone who has read Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, completed in 2008, will know what a totally original book it was. The book could be purchased through the usual channels, but it was (and is) also available to download freely, again entirely consistent with his ethos. This book reflected his determination to use simple physics ideas to perform order of magnitude calculations for many of the critical numbers we need if we are really to get to grips with our energy predicament. I saw him get a group of third year physicists to work out how much energy passengers waiting at Cambridge railway station could generate by pacing up and down while waiting for their trains. Maybe not a practical solution to our energy needs, but a striking illustration of the challenges we face without covering the whole of the United Kingdom’s land mass with solar farms. Looking at every type of renewable energy source in turn, in his book he guesstimated how much energy realistically we could hope to obtain. factoring in what humans are likely to be able to tolerate in terms of living conditions, land use etc. It was eye-opening yet also accessible. If you haven’t already read it I would urge you to do so!

It is no surprise that he was able to catch the imagination of politicians with his simple and easily comprehensible analyses. Nor was it in some ways a surprise that he was lured to work as Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change from 2009-14 (and so in two different complexions of Government). He even modified his style of dress to make him more persuasive. He clearly felt his accustomed garb of shorts and sandals (worn regardless of the weather) wouldn’t go down too well in Westminster and was seen to don a suit and tie in the interests of political persuasion. He still took his foldaway bike everywhere – one of the last times I talked to him was at Cambridge station where he stood, with his typical big grin, with his folding bike in his hands.

When he left DECC he took up the Regius Professorship in Engineering (still in Cambridge). It was a great loss to my department, but his loss to the entire community now stomach cancer has snatched him away is far, far greater. He was a visionary, with a young family and so much to live for. His fight with cancer was movingly described on his own blog. His memory will live on with all of us whose lives he touched, by his writing or in person. What a cruel blow. RIP Sir David MacKay (1967-2014). My thoughts are with your family.


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2 Responses to RIP Sir David MacKay

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    I was saddened to hear about Sir David’s death; I knew of him through “sustainable energy”, but until I read your blog post, I did not know what else he had done outside the climate change area. It is rather saddening also that so few of the major newspapers actually thought that his death justified an obituary; perhaps you can persuade The Guardian to reprise your posting in their ‘Occam’s Corner’.

  2. Richard Powell says:

    Thank you for this appreciation. I shall download Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air straight away.

    The Times, Telegraph and Guardian have all published proper obituaries now, and the FT has published a tribute too – Sometimes it takes these a couple of days to appear, if there wasn’t one on the stocks already and the subject wasn’t directly in the public eye. But his sad death has certainly not been overlooked. Sometimes the British press does its job properly!