Friday, April 15, 2016

David MacKay and individual action

I know that "it rains on the just and on the unjust", but the early death of Prof David MacKay seems to take this too far. What a great guy.

I first learned about him when I was trying to understand modern probability and inference. He wrote an excellent book on this, and made it freely available. It starts out with a nicely self-deprecating story about trying to solve a physics problem that becomes trivial when looked at using Bayesian thinking. Then he used his understanding of inference to build software that enabled highly disabled people to type English on a computer with reasonable efficiency by just steering towards various options with the most probable being the biggest target. And he then went and worked with disabled people to make it work for them. More about these things on his web page (which I hope is preserved for posterity):

He became interested in global warming. He was particularly concerned that politicians were making token plans that had no hope of addressing the problem. As, indeed, they still are. So he wrote a book on sustainable energy. I was already following his blog, so I saw early drafts. In the early drafts nuclear power was classified as unsustainable because of incorrect low estimates on the amount of available uranium.  But in the end the book includes nuclear power in the options for ending the use of fossil fuel. Though the book is written in a balanced way, its effect on me was to convince me that nuclear power is the only answer and wind and solar are a distraction from the mammoth investment needed in research and development of next generation nuclear power.

The effect of his beautifully balanced and logical and well researched book was that the British Labour government gave him a big public service job as scientific advisor to the Energy ministry. This enabled him to build a tool for future energy planning that anybody could use. The end result is that Britain is continuing to expand nuclear power while other countries are talking wind and solar, closing down nuclear power and very quietly building ever more coal and gas power plants.

MacKay was big on individual action. He made his house as energy efficient as possible and turned the thermostat down. He rode a bicycle. I think that this sort of thing is counter productive. Most people are struggling with life and this just puts them in "I don't want to think about that stuff" mode. And, just like turning your phone charger off when not using it, it isn't going to get the job done.

It is a sobering thought that when David MacKay is my age he'll have been dead for 20 years (a modified Tom Lehrer quote).