By Tom Blees
Back in 2008, when Prescription for the Planet was published, there was another book on energy that was published that caught my eye. It was by a Cambridge physics professor named David MacKay, called Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air. I was impressed not only with the content of the book but at the fact that David was offering it as a free download if one wanted just an electronic version. As a first-time author myself who still was laboring under the fantasy that a person can make money selling books, this seemed a rarely-seen expression of commitment to use one’s work to educate the public. I wrote to David and we struck up a friendship, and following his example I too began to offer my book for free, as did our recently departed SCGI board member, Joe Shuster. Both books will continue to be available for free here on our website. I thought this would be a good time to explain that David was the inspiration for that.
David passed away this week after a 9-month battle with cancer. He was only 48 years old, and his unexpected diagnosis and death at that age finds him tragically leaving behind his wife and two young children. David wrote to me last year right after he discovered his cancer, and last October when I was in London we’d planned to get together for what we knew would be the last time, but when my planned trip through Cambridge ended up being canceled, I suggested to him that I wouldn’t come up because I thought he’d want to be spending his time with his family instead of visitors. So my memory of my last visit to him, several months before his diagnosis last July, is of a healthy and happy and inspiring friend.
When SCGI was formed in 2009, David was going to join our group, but suddenly he was asked by the UK government to take the post of chief science advisor for the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC), so he was precluded from joining SCGI when he accepted that post. My annual visits with him when business brought me to London were opportunities for David to involve me in discussions with other members of DECC, and when the issue of the UK’s plutonium disposition problem arose, he was in a key position to see that scientific objectivity would have a chance in what had the potential to be a political mess.
SCGI submitted a proposal to the UK government’s “consultation” (a request for suggestions) on how to dispose of the world’s largest inventory of plutonium, suggesting that it could be most effectively used as fuel in fast reactors. General Electric also offered a similar suggestion, offering to build their PRISM reactor in the UK for that purpose. But both our submissions were being ignored as the politically powerful AREVA seemed to be steamrolling through their proposed solution, a mixed-oxide (MOX) plant that would be outrageously expensive and problematic in a variety of ways. I wrote to David when I realized that the fast reactor proposals were being ignored as stories began appearing in the British press reporting that a deal with AREVA looked imminent. I asked him if there was anything he could do to see that our proposals would at least get a fair hearing and not be rejected out of hand. Suddenly there was a complete turnaround, and GE was invited to present their proposal to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. While that effort began (thanks, I believe, to David’s intervention) very begrudgingly, that process gradually led to a situation where it’s now highly likely that the UK will ultimately choose the PRISM option.
That incident was a classic example of the scientific and intellectual integrity that was fundamental to David MacKay’s character. An obituary in The Register describes this well:
The Register is a fan of his book: In our 2009 review, we wrote:
Steering away from politics and economics, Sustainable Energy is satisfied with providing you with the numbers that are both thought provoking and easy to grasp. MacKay encourages you to make your own mind up - leaving you to ponder the hard facts (which are simplified by using a single measurement for each form of power consumption and production) and decipher sense from nonsense when looking at the alternatives to fossil fuels.
So why did he feel compelled to venture into such a thorny area? "I was distressed by the poor quality of the debate surrounding energy," he said in 2009, in an interview with The Guardian.
"I was also noticing so much greenwash from politicians and big business. I was tired of the debate - the extremism, the nimbyism, the hairshirt. We need a constructive conversation about energy, not a Punch and Judy show. I just wanted to try to reboot the whole debate. Most of physics is about energy, and physicists understand inefficiencies. I wanted to write a book about our energy options in a neutral, human-accessible form."
David MacKay will be remembered by people all over the world as a champion of intellectual integrity, and will be sorely missed by all of us who had a chance to know him as a warm and generous friend.
Here are some links to articles about/by David, including this link to a blog he wrote chronicling his experiences with cancer since his diagnosis last summer. Even in that frustrating struggle, David’s propensity to share his knowledge and experience led him to offer his personal insights into the world of end-of-life medical science. Here are a few more links you might like to look at:
David’s TED talk: A Reality Check on Renewables
The Register: David’s obituary excerpted above
The Telegraph: Another obituary
Download David’s book: Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air
Mark Lynas: What David MacKay taught me, and taught us all