back to article Brit AI daddy Sir David MacKay dies

David MacKay, or more formally Sir David John Cameron MacKay, FRS, FInstP, FICE, was a true polymath who achieved greatness in the fields of physics, computer science and energy policy. He died of cancer this week aged 48. His Royal Society Biography listed just some of his achievements here: David developed a way to correct …

  1. Ivor

    A brilliant man, such a loss.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This year didn't start well (Bowie, George Martin, and others)

    And it isn't getting any better.

    I've been an admirer and occasional recommender of SEWTHA for a while. It may not be perfect (what is), but I've yet to see a better collection of energy-related facts numbers and logic suitable for the non-technical. I've been following his medical blog since I heard the news.

    Condolences etc to those close to the man.

    He's left lots of good stuff to be remembered by.

    Many thanks are due, much respect is due.

  3. JLV

    let's not forget greenwash from the tree hugger lobby either.

    Aw, shit, so sorry.

    >so much greenwash from politicians and big business

    Yes, and from greenies too, as you can read between the lines of the book.

    If people like him were more listened to, we would not have so much misty-eyed subsidies for biodiesel, wind-turbine, etc... Basically, while he cared very much about the climate, he also did not mince words when the numbers just didn't add up.

    Sustainable Energy mostly covers the UK and his analysis of renewables look at things like available landmass for plant-based biodiesel harvesting assuming phosynthesis-level conversion efficiency (not enough), storage capacity for wind/solar generation (not near enough hydro capacity to cover UK storage needs). I.e. look at the physical inputs needed to replace x% of UK energy use, allowing for peaks and troughs in generation ouput. Are they viable for the UK? Most were not.

    His take on nukes wasn't to my liking, which is to say he wanted either renewables or 1000 yr energy supply availability, IIRC. Too high a bar, IMHO.

    But regardless of the validity of his calculations on some specific item, I have immense respect for his desire to actually see if plugging a reasonable numerical approximation results in something useful or not. That's even before looking at the economics - i.e. if it sucks at the infinite $ available stage, it won't get any better when you have to budget for it.

    You can always improve on/correct the numerical models, but the need to look at them in the first place? Totally a necessary step that so many tree huggers miss entirely. Money wasted on bad solutions is money not available for better ones.

    Sorely missed.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Sustainable Energy mostly covers the UK"

    Careful. The physics of energy supply and demand is the same everywhere, and is well covered in the book.

    The inputs and the economics and the practicality may change with location. In this aspect the book does indeed largely focus on the UK, understandably, with occasional comparisons with other parts of the world.

    His fast-paced 20minute TEDtalk from 2012 on the subject you mention is one of his many works that are well worth a look (though the pace is such that you may find it helpful to refer to the book for some of the important statistics):

    "How much land mass would renewables need to power a nation like the UK? An entire country's worth. In this pragmatic talk, David MacKay tours the basic mathematics that show worrying limitations on our sustainable energy options and explains why we should pursue them anyway."

    1. JLV

      Re: "Sustainable Energy mostly covers the UK"

      I think you've misunderstood my comment about UK-specificity.

      If you mean that his methods and way of thinking can be applied anywhere, then yes, I am 100% with you. The energy demand side is also, mostly, fungible wrt location, with the exception of heating vs AC requirements.

      On the supply side however, sorry, things are very geography-bound. And so is the book's analysis. The UK is characterized by high population density, limited insolation, a fairly flat terrain, winter heating requirements and a ... coastline.

      Even as he dismisses solar energy, within the UK, he notes that we could build a plant in the Sahara to supply Europe with power. And that the US could meet its energy need with a massive solar plant in the SouthWestern desert - no doubt the greenies would be against it for disrupting an endangered sea turtle's habitat, but I digress.

      A policy analysis carried out in Arizona could look at Mr Mc Kay's methods and apply them. But they would come to almost opposite solutions on the supply side.

      To put it another way: it is great that a country like Jordan is building up its solar electricity capacity. However, I doubt Germany's voters and consumers were aiming for an increase in national CO2 emissions when they embarked on a subsidy adventure that has seen them sink more than 100B Euros into wind and solar. Yes, they may have subsidized solar technology research for the rest of the planet, but it's still a massive policy failure that could have been adverted by reading this book and paying more attention to own their national geographical realities.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "Sustainable Energy mostly covers the UK"

        "I think you've misunderstood my comment about UK-specificity."

        I think so too. Apologies.

        "we could build a plant in the Sahara to supply Europe with power."

        That'd be something like the (now largely abandoned) Desertec project. The technology would largely have worked, the coming crisis is still not sufficiently imminent for the project to be profitable (to corporates or politicians) short-term.

        "US could meet its [electricity] need with a massive"ly oversized wind power network across the USA. Not sure the evidence was there in the SEWTHA era, but in recent years there is evidence to suggest that the US could run off wind alone **without storage**, simply by massively oversizing the wind installations and providing a massive program of cross country high power inteconnections. This works in the US because the US is bigger than its own weather systems, ie it truly is always windy somewhere in the USA, all it needs is some generation there and a cable or two to connect it to the customers. The same idea doesn't work in the UK (or even Northern Europe) because it's possible (and likely) that the whole area will be becalmed for days on end, because the area of interest is smaller than an individual weather system.

        It's courtesy of Mackay and his work (together with others, obviously, as his references clearly demonstrate) that members of the public can have informed discussions on subjects like this.

  5. Pompous Git Silver badge

    "This is a straight-talking book about the numbers"

    The point is that these natural flows in and out of the atmosphere have been almost exactly in balance for millenia... The natural flows cancelled themselves out.

    The Dome C ice core shows an ~8% increase in CO2 over the 6,000 years prior to 1,000 years ago and a ~16% increase over the 9,000 years before that. "Almost exactly in balance?" Twaddle! Couldn't be bothered reading past that point.

    1. Mike Shepherd

      Re: "This is a straight-talking book about the numbers"

      How close to zero would you like these numbers before you agree that "in" and "out" are "almost exactly in balance"?

      1. Pompous Git Silver badge

        Re: "This is a straight-talking book about the numbers"

        From the POV of plant life, the zero point for CO2 is ~150 ppm. At that point, the energy cost of photosynthesis = the energy gain. Atmospheric CO2 dropped to 160 ppm according to the Antarctic ice core record. Plants recovered from the La Brea tar pits from that period had become sufficiently starved of "carbon pollution" to have become unable to reproduce. I suspect that had the atmosphere remained at that point, we would not be having this discussion.

  6. This post has been deleted by its author

  7. Stevie Silver badge


    Agree with his views or not, it is a shame that one with so much to contribute to the Human Uplift had to die so young.

    1. Pompous Git Silver badge

      Re: Bah!


      ― Terry Pratchett

  8. JeffyPoooh

    First of all, RIP and Condolences

    A great loss. Condolences to his family. Too young.

    The subtitle of his ebook '...without all the hot air' reminds me of the energy storage concept where the heat generated by compression of air is captured and stored separately. Then upon release of the compressed air, the heat can be reinserted. Increased efficiency overall.


    I'm sure that he'd want people to share pointers to such concepts, in case they're useful.

  9. Richard Wharram

    Great book, great man, great loss

    as above...

  10. Frank Marsh

    I never knew you

    but I learned at your knee. Never thought I'd look at Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms and feel a twinge of sadness. Since Arthur Rank Hospice Charity was important to you, I've donated. Rest in peace.

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