David J. C. MacKay

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Sir David MacKay
David MacKay photographed by David Stern
Born David John Cameron MacKay
(1967-04-22)22 April 1967[1][2]
Stoke-on-Trent, England
Died 14 April 2016(2016-04-14) (aged 48)
Cambridge, England
Alma mater
Thesis Bayesian methods for adaptive models (1992)
Doctoral advisor John Hopfield[3]
Doctoral students
Known for
Notable awards
Spouse Ramesh Ghiassi (m. 2011)[20]

Sir David John Cameron MacKay, FRS,[18] FInstP, FICE (22 April 1967 – 14 April 2016)[1][21] was a British physicist, mathematician, and academic. He was the Regius Professor of Engineering[22] in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge[23] and from 2009 to 2014 was Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).[24] MacKay was well known as author of the book Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air.[15][25][26]


MacKay was educated at Newcastle High School and represented Britain in the International Physics Olympiad in Yugoslavia in 1985,[27] 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.[1] He went to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as a Fulbright Scholar, where his supervisor was John Hopfield.[3] He was awarded a PhD in 1992.[28][29]

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.[30]

MacKay's contributions[31][32][33][34] in machine learning and information theory include the development of Bayesian methods[35] for neural networks,[36] the rediscovery (with Radford M. Neal) of low-density parity-check codes,[16] and the invention of Dasher,[17] a software application for communication especially popular with those who cannot use a traditional keyboard.[37] He cofounded the knowledge management company Transversal.[38] In 2003, his book Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms[39] 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.[40] The book received praise from The Economist,[41] The Guardian,[40] and Bill Gates, who called it "one of the best books on energy that has been written."[42][43] Like his textbook on Information theory, MacKay made the book available for free online. In March 2012 he gave a TED talk on renewable energy.[44]

MacKay was appointed to be Chief Scientific Advisor of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, United Kingdom, in September 2009.[24] In October 2014, at the end of his five-year term, he was succeeded by John Loughhead.[45]

Awards and honours[edit]

MacKay was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 2009.[18] His certificate of election reads:

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.[46][47]

Personal life[edit]

MacKay was born the fifth child of Donald MacCrimmon MacKay and Valerie MacKay.[1] His elder brother Robert S. MacKay FRS (born in 1956) is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick. MacKay was a vegetarian.[48]

He married Ramesh Ghiassi in 2011.[1] They had a son, Torrin, and a daughter, Eriska.[21]

Illness and death[edit]

MacKay was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer (malignant adenocarcinoma) in July 2015, for which he underwent palliative chemotherapy, a process he documented in detail on his public personal blog.[49][50] He died in the afternoon of 14 April 2016.[51][52][53][54] He is survived by his wife and two children.[21]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g MacKAY, Prof. David John Cameron. Who's Who. 2016 (online Oxford University Press ed.). A & C Black, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing plc.  (subscription required)
  2. ^ David MacKay (2010-02-07). "Biography – David J.C. MacKay". web homepage. University of Cambridge. Archived from the original on 2016-04-16. Retrieved 2012-10-12. 
  3. ^ a b c David J. C. MacKay at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  4. ^ a b c d David MacKay (2015). "Inference Group PhD Theses submitted". Cambridge: University of Cambridge. Archived from the original on 2016-04-26. 
  5. ^ a b c d e David MacKay (2015). "Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge: The Inference Group". Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. 
  6. ^ Adams, Ryan P. (2009). Kernel methods for nonparametric Bayesian inference of probability densities and point processes (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. 
  7. ^ Davey, M. C. (2000). Error-correction using low-density parity-check codes (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. 
  8. ^ Gibbs, M. N. (1998). Bayesian Gaussian processes for regression and classification (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. 
  9. ^ Hennig, Philipp (2011). Approximate inference in graphical models (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge.  open access publication - free to read
  10. ^ Scheffler, Carl (2012). Applied Bayesian inference : natural language modelling and visual feature tracking (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. 
  11. ^ Stern, David Hector (2008). Modelling uncertainty in the game of Go (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. 
  12. ^ Stegle, Oliver (2009). Probabilistic models in computational biology (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. 
  13. ^ Wallach, Hanna Megan (2008). Structured topic models for language (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. 
  14. ^ Wilson, Simon. (2000). Applications of cyclic belief propagation (PhD thesis). University of Cambridge. 
  15. ^ a b Mackay, David (2009). Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air. UIT Cambridge. ISBN 0-9544529-3-3. 
  16. ^ 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. doi:10.1049/el:19961141. 
  17. ^ 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. doi:10.1109/TNSRE.2006.875573. PMID 16792304. 
  18. ^ a b c "Sir David MacKay FRS". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-11-17.  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 at the Wayback Machine (archived September 25, 2015)

  19. ^ a b "Certificate of election EC/2009/27: MacKay, David John Cameron". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2016-04-26. 
  20. ^ "Ramesh and David". Rameshanddavid.blogspot.com. 15 January 2011. Retrieved 18 October 2012. 
  21. ^ a b c Anon (2016). "Professor Sir David MacKay, physicist – obituary". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 2016-04-17. 
  22. ^ "David MacKay appointed Regius Professor of Engineering". Cambridge: University of Cambridge. Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. 
  23. ^ David MacKay (7 July 2012). "David J.C. MacKay FRS". web homepage. University of Cambridge. Retrieved 12 October 2012. 
  24. ^ a b DECC confirms MacKay as new low-carbon advisor, BusinessGreen, 3 September 2009, retrieved 29 December 2011 
  25. ^ "Britons of the Year", The Daily Telegraph, London, p. 15, 29 December 2009 
  26. ^ "What Will It Take to Save the Earth?" 26 April 2012 by Joel E. Cohen in The New York Review of Books
  27. ^ David MacKay (23 August 2010). "Prof. David J.C. MacKay brief bio sketch". web homepage. University of Cambridge. Retrieved 28 September 2016. 
  28. ^ Mackay, David J.C. (1992). Bayesian methods for adaptive models (PhD thesis). California Institute of Technology. OCLC 222439886. 
  29. ^ David MacKay (24 June 2010). "Prof. David J.C. MacKay". web homepage. University of Cambridge. Retrieved 12 October 2012. 
  30. ^ "David MacKay appointed Regius Professor of Engineering". University of Cambridge. 28 March 2013. Retrieved 3 April 2013. 
  31. ^ David J. C. MacKay at DBLP Bibliography Server
  32. ^ David J. C. MacKay from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Digital Library
  33. ^ David J. C. MacKay's publications indexed by Google Scholar
  34. ^ David J. C. MacKay's publications indexed by the Scopus bibliographic database, a service provided by Elsevier. (subscription required)
  35. ^ MacKay, D. J. C. (1992). "A Practical Bayesian Framework for Backpropagation Networks". Neural Computation. 4 (3): 448–472. doi:10.1162/neco.1992.4.3.448. 
  36. ^ MacKay, D. J. C. (1992). "Bayesian Interpolation". Neural Computation. 4 (3): 415–447. doi:10.1162/neco.1992.4.3.415. 
  37. ^ Ward, D. J.; MacKay, D. J. C. (2002). "Artificial intelligence: Fast hands-free writing by gaze direction". Nature. 418 (6900): 838–838. arXiv:cs/0204030free to read. Bibcode:2002Natur.418..838W. doi:10.1038/418838a. PMID 12192400. 
  38. ^ "Transversal Team". Retrieved 27 January 2015. 
  39. ^ MacKay, David J. C. (September 2003). Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521642989. 
  40. ^ a b Leo Hickman (30 April 2009). "Power to the People". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 January 2011. 
  41. ^ "Meltdown". The Economist. 8 April 2009. Retrieved 14 January 2011. 
  42. ^ Bill Gates (15 January 2010). "Clear Thinking on the Topic of Energy". The Gates Notes. Retrieved 14 January 2011. 
  43. ^ "YouTube – How Many Light Bulbs? with David MacKay From Cambridge Ideas". Retrieved 28 June 2011. 
  44. ^ David MacKay (March 2012). A reality check on renewables. Retrieved 12 October 2012. 
  45. ^ DECC appoints new chief scientific advisor
  46. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 61450. p. N2. 30 December 2015.
  47. ^ "New Year's Honours 2016 list" (pdf). GOV.UK. 30 December 2015. Retrieved 30 December 2015. 
  48. ^ David MacKay (7 February 2010). "David MacKay: Some biographical stuff...". web homepage. University of Cambridge. Retrieved 29 March 2010. 
  49. ^ Unexpected signs of malignancy, 2015-08-27 
  50. ^ What do you tell the children?, 2015-09-01 
  51. ^ Appendix Three- Correspondence, Visitors, and Gifts, 2016-04-12 
  52. ^ Mark Lynas (2016-04-18). "Sir David MacKay obituary". London: The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2016-04-19. 
  53. ^ Athene Donald (2016). "RIP Sir David MacKay". occamstypewriter.org. Archived from the original on 2016-04-19. 
  54. ^ Mark Lynas (2016). "What David MacKay taught me, and taught us all". Archived from the original on 2016-04-15.