Professor David MacKay has been appointed Regius Professor of Engineering at the University of Cambridge.
An eminent researcher in machine learning and information theory, and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Professor MacKay is perhaps better known to the public for his ground-breaking work on sustainable energy and, in particular, as the author of the critically acclaimed book, Sustainable Energy – without the hot air. Since 2009, he has also been Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change.
Regius Professorships are Royal academic titles, created by the monarch. The Engineering role is a new Regius Professorship, announced in 2011 to celebrate the Duke of Edinburgh’s 34 years as Chancellor of the University.
The new post is designed to give an outstanding academic the opportunity to build on the Department of Engineering’s world-leading research in fields that address major, global challenges. These include: creating lasting energy solutions, building cities in the future, managing risks and driving innovation.
Professor MacKay’s work with the Engineering Department will focus, in part, on the study of how we can model and communicate the full economic and societal impact of a shift to sustainable energy sources – a continuation of his recent work with the Government. He will also collaborate with academics, both within Engineering and elsewhere at Cambridge, to explore new opportunities in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy storage.
“I am hugely excited about this opportunity,” Professor MacKay said. “Everything I have done over the past two decades has had an engineering element to it, and since developing an interest in sustainable energy that has only increased.”
“The wonderful thing about this role is that I will have the chance to work alongside some truly fantastic engineers. My hope is that I will be able to bring new ideas about energy research to a Department which is already full of talent that can develop prototypes and bring those concepts to life.”
Professor MacKay’s recent reputation has been as a leading scientist and thinker on sustainability and responses to climate change. Before that, however, his career was focused on other areas, and included developing communication systems for the disabled.
He first came to Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1985, studying Natural Sciences at Trinity College. He then studied for his PhD in Computation and Neural Systems at the California Institute of Technology, where he also developed an interest in green politics and environmental science. In 1992, he returned to Cambridge as a postdoctoral researcher and Fellow of Darwin College, then became a lecturer in the Department of Physics. He was promoted to Professor in 2003.
As a specialist in machine learning and information theory, he has developed more efficient types of error-correcting code that are now used in satellite communications, digital broadcasting, and disk drives. He also used Bayesian methods to improve the performance of artificial neural networks, which are now widely used in applications such as the design of new types of steel for power stations.
His work on communications systems included the invention of “Dasher”, an open-source software interface that enables people with disabilities to write efficiently in any language with any muscle.
More recently, Professor MacKay has devoted much of his time to the topic of sustainable energy. His widely-acclaimed book on the subject – Sustainable Energy – without the hot air – was conceived as a straight-talking assessment of the challenge of curbing human dependence on fossil fuels, and shifting to more sustainable forms of energy consumption and production. MacKay self-funded the publication, and the initial print run of 5,000 copies sold out in a matter of days. The subject of widespread critical praise, the book was described by Bill Gates as “one of the best books on energy that has been written”, and it has been translated into several other languages. A digital edition remains free to download at www.withouthotair.com
In 2009, MacKay was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the same year, he was appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. His duties include ensuring that policy and planning within the Government department is based on the best scientific evidence; providing advice on climate science; ensuring accurate reporting of national greenhouse gas emissions; and recruiting new engineering and science specialists.
As Regius Professor of Engineering, MacKay will continue work he has already begun with the Government on “whole energy system modeling” – examining the full implications of a shift away from fossil fuels towards secure, low-carbon energy supplies. His current work, notable with the open-source “2050 Calculator”, describes how behavioural or technological changes in fields such as transport, lighting, heating, energy storage, and land and livestock management will impact on the scale of energy demand, energy supply, and greenhouse gas emissions.
“Modeling tools like this have a huge impact on the public understanding of energy options, as well as policy-making itself,” he said. “The more explicit and transparent we can be about the trade-offs involved in a shift away from fossil fuels, the better our final decisions will be. It helps to engage the public with the options, and replaces a culture of negativity by allowing people to understand what a low-carbon future will entail in a more complete and positive way.”
MacKay’s work at Engineering will also allow him to explore other, “blue skies” ideas on similar themes. In particular, he is interested in developing a cross-Cambridge collaboration, involving several departments around the University, which will look at developing biosystems that can efficiently turn sunlight into electricity and useful chemicals. Other possible projects may examine “osmotic power” (the extraction of energy from river mouths, where fresh water meets sea water), “kite power” (a possible solution to providing wind power without turbines), and new energy storage solutions.
Professor MacKay will take up his role as Regius Professor on March 29. He will continue in his role as Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, which is due to run until the autumn of 2014.
Welcoming the appointment, Professor Dame Ann Dowling, Head of the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge, said: “David has a track record of excellent achievements in machine learning and information, while his work on energy has laid out a quantitative framework for identifying technologies that can make a real difference to the world’s growing energy needs in sustainable ways. The Department has highlighted energy, transport and urban infrastructure as a major strategic research theme and I look forward to David playing a significant role in that.”
Acclaimed author of “Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air” will be first holder of Royally-appointed engineering post at Cambridge.
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