R.I.P. David Mackay (1967-2016)

Professor David Mackay , who died yesterday

Professor David Mackay , who died yesterday

Yesterday evening I heard from friends at Cambridge the devastating news that David Mackay has passed away. I knew this would happen eventually. About a year ago David was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of stomach cancer that was expected to be terminal. Since then he has fought for his life with great courage and posted regular updates on his blog. On Sunday, however, he posted a heartbreaking piece that made it clear that he was about to lose the battle. He died yesterday at the age of 48. Fuck you, cancer.

For those who didn’t know Professor Sir David John Cameron Mackay, he was an extremely distinguished scientist and engineer, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a former Chief Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. He is probably best known outside his own research for his book Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air which has become a standard undergraduate textbook not only in the United Kingdom but across the world. He will be remembered for this work, and it is indeed a fitting memorial, but he also did many other things. In fact he was a primarily a physicist (he did the same Natural Sciences course at Cambridge that I did) but his interests were always interdisciplinary in nature. He got his PhD from Caltech for a thesis about Bayesian Methods for Adaptive Models and after returning to Cambridge he rose rapidly through the ranks and eventually found himself as Regius Professor of Engineering there. He devoted a great deal of his time and effort to outreach and science policy and was one of our finest public intellectuals. He was knighted in this year’s New Years Honours List.

I didn’t actually know David very well personally – we met only a few times – but on each occasion I was struck not only by his sheer intelligence, but also his energy and the force  of his personality. You meet few people who make such a lasting impression so quickly as David. He was forthright in his views, but always honest and engaging. The word “luminary” definitely applied to him. One time we met was at a meeting about Bayesian Cosmology about a decade ago. He asked a question during my talk, which triggered a lively discussion that carried on into the coffee break. I was impressed that he saw immediately how to tackle a problem that I had struggled with for months. I feel honoured to have made his acquaintance, however briefly, and can’t even begin to imagine what people who were closer to him must be feeling at his loss in such a cruel fashion. I send my deepest condolences go out to his family and friends. He was brilliant and amazing person, and will be greatly missed.

Rest in Peace David Mackay (1967-2016).

P.S. Shortly before he died, David set up a Just Giving page in favour of the Arthur Rank Hospice Charity. Please consider making a donation in his memory.





18 Responses to “R.I.P. David Mackay (1967-2016)”

  1. It’s not just people I know (of) dying, but people I know (of) dying who are younger than I am that sometimes brings me down.

    On the other hand, my aunts and uncles have all lived to a ripe old age, and those who died a bit earlier (though one of these was at 92) were (former) smokers who dies of lung cancer, so maybe I have cause for hope. One uncle will be 97 this year.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      My father was a heavy smoker for the last 60 years of his life till he died aged 80, and it was not lung cancer that killed him.

      About people younger than oneself dying, I heard one man memorably comment to another, “They’re fishing in our pond now.”

      • Helmut Schmidt was probably one of the heaviest smokers ever, all his life, and died at almost 97. There are people who get lung cancer who never smoked nor were exposed to carcinogens. But these are exceptions. There is a strong correlation.

      • telescoper Says:

        My grandfather was such a heavy smoker that I can’t remember seeing him without a cigarette. All his Christmas presents came out of the Embassy coupon catalogue.

  2. As well as the Hot Air thing, he wrote the modern classic “Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms”. I keep dipping into it, and always meaning to work through it slowly and thoroughly. Maybe I really will now! Check out the v.amusing comparison with Harry Potter on his website.

  3. […] RIP David Mackay — In the Dark Blog […]

  4. MacKay’s death seems like a great injustice. Apart from his books, what really impressed me about him was his final blog posts. He had real courage.

    I was also disappointed by several of the comments I see to your post about MacKay’s death, Christian. Several of these comments seem very disrespectful to such a great man.

    • telescoper Says:

      Disrespectful? How?

    • Nothing particularly disrespectful, as far as I can see, But when someone has died, it is better to write about the person. Discussing yourself or statistics can be done some other time. I have used his book on (or against) hot air a lot in my teaching. He made it freely available as well. I didn’t know himself at all, but to me it showed that he found other people more important than himself. His blog shows an educator to the last.

  5. […] a couple of weeks weeks ago. It’s the last interview recorded by David Mackay before his untimely death from cancer in April. He’s characteristically direct in pointing out that the idea that the UK could be powered […]

  6. Rajasree Narayanan Says:

    My heart felt condolence really sad .i still remember still the mathematical workshop at Lesotho held on Lesotho years back

  7. Rajasree Narayanan Says:

    Really sad .I still remember the mathematical workshop and your science classes held at Lesotho years back. No words can describe how sorry I am for the loss.

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