David MacKay – last interview and tribute

I had the honour of recording David MacKay’s last interview, on 3 April 2016. The idea was to present him with the Breakthrough Paradigm award because due to his illness he was unlikely to be able to travel to the awards ceremony in June 2016. However, we talked about a lot of different things, and together with David’s wife Ramesh I wanted this video and tribute to appear beforehand in full and unedited. David obviously knew he didn’t have long, and was consequently more forthright than he had perhaps been in previous interviews. Please do not quote him out of context or sensationalise what he said.

David died soon aftewards. You can read my personal thoughts about David in this blogpost, read David’s own final blogposts here, and also find the obituary I wrote for him in the Guardian newspaper. You’ll see he also mentions the Global Calculator, which you can find here. My thanks go to Davin Yap, who did the cameras, and Robert Stone, who put the different feeds together and stitched it into a remarkable piece of film and I hope a fitting tribute to David MacKay. Thanks are also due, as you will see, to The Proclaimers.


See you in 500 Miles!


Deformed GMO Franken-butterflies? Not so fast…

It’s like Seralini with caterpillars. While the estimable Professor Giles-Eric had his infamous rats with tumours, this time we get deformed butterflies. The only surprise is that the media has not so far picked up the story, despite the catchy photographs helpfully included by the authors (see below). This is probably a good thing, because a read of the paper in question suggests two things: one, it is irrelevant, and two, it is likely wrong anyway.


Butterfly with deformed wings on the left, purportedly ’caused’ by novel fatty acids in GMO camelina

Some background: Scientists at the government-funded Rothamsted Research institute in the UK have been developing omega-3 fatty acids in the oilseed crop camelina, using genetic engineering to transfer the relevant genes into the target plant. The object is to develop a sustainable source of feed for fish farming: currently farmed salmon are dependent for these essential oils on fish harvested from the marine environment. To reduce the burden of overfishing we need a land-based supply of feed, hence the project.

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UK’s top scientists slam Times newspaper over climate denialist stories

An eminent group of some of the UK’s top names in science, business and policy has sent a letter to the editor of the Times newspaper harshly criticising its coverage of climate change – which in recent days has included reports claiming that the global temperature will not rise during this century, and that ocean acidification is not a concern. I reproduce this letter in full below:

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Sir David MacKay obituary

David with his trusty bicycle. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

David with his trusty bicycle. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

Please note: details of funeral arrangements for David are here.

Sir David MacKay, who has died of cancer aged 48, was a true polymath, a rare breed in today’s world, where the frontiers of scientific knowledge are increasingly remote and complex. It is a testament to David’s intellectual brilliance that he was able to contribute to advancing more than one of these frontiers during his short career.

Full obituary in the Guardian, written by Mark Lynas, published 18 April 2016

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What David MacKay taught me, and taught us all

The end, when it inevitably came, arrived much sooner than any of us – even David – had expected. After his diagnosis with terminal stomach cancer in July 2015, David MacKay, with characteristic mathematical clarity, sketched out his likely life expectancy on a whiteboard graph. As you can see in the image, he gave himself a 50:50 chance of surviving until January 2017, while “>2 years” was “v. unlikely”.
Probabilistic thinking came easily to David, as the many aficionados of his landmark textbook Information Theory, Inference and Learning Algorithms who are currently deluging Twitter with moving and heartfelt condolence messages will attest. However, sadly for David, for his family, for all of us, and indeed for the world, his remaining lifetime was very much at the left side of the S curve, and he died on the afternoon of 14 April 2016, just a week short of what would have been his 49th birthday.

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