David J. C. MacKay

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David MacKay

David John Cameron MacKay

(1967-04-22)22 April 1967[4][6]
Died14 April 2016(2016-04-14) (aged 48)
Cambridge, England
Alma mater
Known for
Ramesh Ghiassi
(m. 2011)
Scientific career
ThesisBayesian methods for adaptive models (1992)
Doctoral advisorJohn Hopfield[5]

Sir David John Cameron MacKay FRS FInstP FICE[3][1] (22 April 1967 – 14 April 2016[4][11]) was a British physicist, mathematician, and academic. He was the Regius Professor of Engineering[12] in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge[13] and from 2009 to 2014 was Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).[14] MacKay wrote the book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air.[7][15][16]


MacKay was educated at Newcastle High School and represented Britain in the International Physics Olympiad in Yugoslavia in 1985,[17] receiving the first prize for experimental work. He continued his education at Trinity College, Cambridge, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Natural Sciences (Experimental and theoretical physics) in 1988.[4] He went to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as a Fulbright Scholar, where his supervisor was John Hopfield.[5] He was awarded a PhD in 1992.[18][19][3]

Career and research[edit]

In January 1992 MacKay was appointed the Royal Society Smithson Research Fellow at Darwin College, Cambridge, continuing his cross-disciplinary research in the Cavendish Laboratory, the Department of Physics of the University of Cambridge. In 1995 he was made a University Lecturer in the Cavendish Laboratory. He was promoted in 1999 to a Readership, in 2003 to a Professorship in Natural Philosophy and in 2013 to the post of Regius Professorship of Engineering.[20]

MacKay's contributions[21][22][23][24] in machine learning and information theory include the development of Bayesian methods[25] for neural networks,[26] the rediscovery (with Radford M. Neal) of low-density parity-check codes,[8] and the invention of Dasher,[9] a software application for communication especially popular with those who cannot use a traditional keyboard.[27] He cofounded the knowledge management company Transversal.[28] In 2003, his book Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms[29] was published.

His interests beyond research included the development of effective teaching methods and African development; he taught regularly at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town from its foundation in 2003 to 2006. In 2008 he completed a book on energy consumption and energy production without fossil fuels called Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. MacKay used £10,000 of his own money to publish the book, and the initial print run of 5,000 sold within days.[30] The book received praise from The Economist,[31] The Guardian,[30] and Bill Gates, who called it "one of the best books on energy that has been written."[32][33] Like his textbook on Information theory, MacKay made the book available for free online.[34] In March 2012 he gave a TED talk on renewable energy.[35]

MacKay was appointed to be Chief Scientific Advisor of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, United Kingdom, in September 2009.[14] In October 2014, at the end of his five-year term, he was succeeded by John Loughhead.[36]

Awards and honours[edit]

MacKay was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2009.[1] His certificate of election reads:

David MacKay introduced more efficient types of error-correcting code that are now used in satellite communications, digital broadcasting and magnetic recording. He advanced the field of Machine Learning by providing a sound Bayesian foundation for artificial neural networks. Using this foundation, he significantly improved their performance, allowing them to be used for designing new types of steel that are now used in power stations. He used his expertise in information theory to design a widely used interface called "dasher" that allows disabled people to write efficiently using a single finger or head-mounted pointer."[2]

In the 2016 New Year Honours, MacKay was appointed a Knight Bachelor "for services to Scientific Advice in Government and Science Outreach", and therefore granted the title sir.[37][38]

Personal life[edit]

David MacKay was born the fifth child of Donald MacCrimmon MacKay and Valerie MacKay.[4] His elder brother Robert S. MacKay FRS (born in 1956) is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick. David was a vegetarian.[39]

He married Ramesh Ghiassi in 2011.[4] They had a son and a daughter.[11]

Illness and death[edit]

MacKay was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer (malignant adenocarcinoma) in July 2015,[3] for which he underwent palliative chemotherapy, a process he documented in detail on his public personal blog.[40][41] He died in the afternoon of 14 April 2016.[42][43][44][45] He is survived by his wife and two children.[11]


  1. ^ a b c Anon (2009). "Sir David MacKay FRS". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 17 November 2015. One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from the royalsociety.org website where:

    “All text published under the heading 'Biography' on Fellow profile pages is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.” --"Royal Society Terms, conditions and policies". Archived from the original on 25 September 2015. Retrieved 9 March 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)

  2. ^ a b Anon (2009). "Certificate of election EC/2009/27: MacKay, David John Cameron". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 15 February 2019.
  3. ^ a b c d Longair, Malcolm; Cates, Michael (2017). "Sir David John Cameron MacKay FRS. 22 April 1967 — 14 April 2016". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 63: 443–465. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2017.0013. ISSN 0080-4606.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g "MacKAY, Prof. David John Cameron". Who's Who. Vol. 2016 (online Oxford University Press ed.). Oxford: A & C Black. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. ^ a b David J. C. MacKay at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  6. ^ David MacKay (7 February 2010). "Biography – David J.C. MacKay". web homepage. University of Cambridge. Archived from the original on 16 April 2016. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  7. ^ a b Mackay, David (2009). Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air. UIT Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-9544529-3-3.
  8. ^ a b MacKay, D. J. C.; Neal, R. M. (1996). "Near Shannon limit performance of low density parity check codes". Electronics Letters. 32 (18): 1645. Bibcode:1996ElL....32.1645M. doi:10.1049/el:19961141.
  9. ^ a b Wills, S. A.; MacKay, D. J. C. (2006). "DASHER—An Efficient Writing System for Brain–Computer Interfaces?". IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering. 14 (2): 244–246. CiteSeerX doi:10.1109/TNSRE.2006.875573. PMID 16792304. S2CID 185665.
  10. ^ "Ramesh and David". Rameshanddavid.blogspot.com. 15 January 2011. Retrieved 18 October 2012.
  11. ^ a b c Anon (2016). "Professor Sir David MacKay, physicist – obituary". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 17 April 2016.
  12. ^ "David MacKay appointed Regius Professor of Engineering". Cambridge: University of Cambridge. 28 March 2013. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016.
  13. ^ David MacKay (7 July 2012). "David J.C. MacKay FRS". web homepage. University of Cambridge. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  14. ^ a b DECC confirms MacKay as new low-carbon advisor, BusinessGreen, 3 September 2009, retrieved 29 December 2011
  15. ^ "Britons of the Year", The Daily Telegraph, London, p. 15, 29 December 2009
  16. ^ "What Will It Take to Save the Earth?" 26 April 2012 by Joel E. Cohen in The New York Review of Books
  17. ^ David MacKay (23 August 2010). "Prof. David J.C. MacKay brief bio sketch". web homepage. University of Cambridge. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  18. ^ Mackay, David J.C. (1992). Bayesian methods for adaptive models (PhD thesis). California Institute of Technology. OCLC 222439886.
  19. ^ David MacKay (24 June 2010). "Prof. David J.C. MacKay". web homepage. University of Cambridge. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  20. ^ "David MacKay appointed Regius Professor of Engineering". University of Cambridge. 28 March 2013. Retrieved 3 April 2013.
  21. ^ David J. C. MacKay at DBLP Bibliography Server Edit this at Wikidata
  22. ^ David J. C. MacKay author profile page at the ACM Digital Library
  23. ^ David J. C. MacKay publications indexed by Google Scholar Edit this at Wikidata
  24. ^ David J. C. MacKay publications indexed by the Scopus bibliographic database. (subscription required)
  25. ^ MacKay, D. J. C. (1992). "A Practical Bayesian Framework for Backpropagation Networks" (PDF). Neural Computation. 4 (3): 448–472. doi:10.1162/neco.1992.4.3.448. S2CID 16543854.
  26. ^ MacKay, D. J. C. (1992). "Bayesian Interpolation". Neural Computation. 4 (3): 415–447. doi:10.1162/neco.1992.4.3.415. S2CID 1762283.
  27. ^ Ward, D. J.; MacKay, D. J. C. (2002). "Artificial intelligence: Fast hands-free writing by gaze direction". Nature. 418 (6900): 838. arXiv:cs/0204030. Bibcode:2002Natur.418..838W. doi:10.1038/418838a. PMID 12192400. S2CID 4430685.
  28. ^ "Transversal Team". Archived from the original on 28 January 2015. Retrieved 27 January 2015.
  29. ^ MacKay, David J. C. (September 2003). Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521642989.
  30. ^ a b Leo Hickman (30 April 2009). "Power to the People". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 January 2011.
  31. ^ "Meltdown". The Economist. 8 April 2009. Retrieved 14 January 2011.
  32. ^ Bill Gates (15 January 2010). "Clear Thinking on the Topic of Energy". The Gates Notes. Archived from the original on 5 January 2011. Retrieved 14 January 2011.
  33. ^ "YouTube – How Many Light Bulbs? with David MacKay From Cambridge Ideas". YouTube. Archived from the original on 21 December 2021. Retrieved 28 June 2011.
  34. ^ "Sustainable energy - Without the Hot Air". David MacKay FRS. 29 August 2015. Retrieved 2 July 2017.
  35. ^ David MacKay (March 2012). A reality check on renewables. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  36. ^ DECC appoints new chief scientific advisor
  37. ^ "No. 61450". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 2015. p. N2.
  38. ^ "New Year's Honours 2016 list" (PDF). GOV.UK. 30 December 2015. Retrieved 30 December 2015.
  39. ^ David MacKay (7 February 2010). "David MacKay: Some biographical stuff..." web homepage. University of Cambridge. Retrieved 29 March 2010.
  40. ^ Unexpected signs of malignancy, 27 August 2015
  41. ^ What do you tell the children?, 1 September 2015
  42. ^ Appendix Three- Correspondence, Visitors, and Gifts, 12 April 2016
  43. ^ Mark Lynas (18 April 2016). "Sir David MacKay obituary". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 19 April 2016.
  44. ^ Athene Donald (2016). "RIP Sir David MacKay". occamstypewriter.org. Archived from the original on 19 April 2016.
  45. ^ Mark Lynas (2016). "What David MacKay taught me, and taught us all". Archived from the original on 15 April 2016.