A tribute to former DECC chief scientific adviser Sir David MacKay

By Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Fellow, Darwin College, Cambridge

Sir David MacKay, Regius Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, passed away on 14 April 2016. He was an intellectual genius with immense humanity, a strong sense of social justice and an endearing sense of humour. He had once-in-a generation brilliance – a polymath whose works were seminal across an unimaginable span of subjects. 

David-MacKay-by-TEDxWarwick

Sir David MacKay. Image: TEDxWarwick, creative commons licence

He is widely known for his agenda-setting book “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air”, which cut through the “twaddle” to present a refreshingly brutal and highly persuasive evidence-based assessment of the choices we have for our energy future. He strove tirelessly to press for such evidence-based analysis to be applied to policy decisions during his tenure as Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change.

His clarity of thought and incredible ability to provide fresh insight on complex problems ran much deeper however. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 2009 having made signifiant development in fields including machine learning and efficient communication, as well as sustainable energy. He is held in the highest esteem in each of these domains and leaves great legacies that will be exploited for decades to come, with his book “Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms” widely regarded as a classic. One of the most poignant moments of a symposium held in Cambridge in his honour shortly before his death was the testimony from users of Dasher, a life-enhancing software application he developed to assist highly disabled individuals to communicate.

Just as unique as his intellectual prowess, was his limitless kindness and generosity. Always smiling, relentlessly enthusiastic, needlessly self-deprecating. He was driven by a desire to right wrongs as exemplified in his involvement in the campaign to rectify the judicial injustice to Sally Clark. His zest for the life so cruelly cut short was immense. In a characteristically personal touch, his website at the Cavendish Laboratory includes among journal publications and teaching material a recipe for porridge, with the charming caveat, “for me, every day is a special occasion. I add a large spoon of golden syrup.”

Beyond all this, David was a deeply loving family man. He quite evidently adored his wife and two young children, often sharing anecdotes of his son and daughter. All our thoughts are with them at this tragic time.

He approached his surprise terminal cancer diagnosis with typical dignity and pragmatism, detailing his final months in a frank blog. Ever willing to take time to engage in scientific discussion, even in his last days he was providing his unrivalled clarity to the energy debate from his hospital bed through email and twitter correspondence. He has inspired so many and will be sorely missed by so many.