David MacKay

I’ve been thinking about my professional role models, like W. Richard Stevens. David MacKay is another. He was the author of my favorite textbook in computer science, Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms. It’s not a subject I have much expertise in, but I was deeply impressed from the first time I picked up the book. It’s a challenging read, though not for the usual reasons such books are challenging – too many equations, too little exposition. There’s plenty of exposition in MacKay’s book. The challenge is that there’s simply no filler in it. You have to read every sentence MacKay writes and think about it.

Professor MacKay taught a course based on the book to undergraduates in Cambridge while I was there. Sadly, I never had the time to devote to it. I did go to a few of his group seminars in the Cavendish Laboratory, and recall a fascinating presentation he gave on the Drake equation.

Later he published Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, a book that somehow managed to be accessible to a lay audience while also having very little filler. Professor MacKay was a public intellectual in an age when such people are very rare. Like W. Richard Stevens, his career was a lesson in how much one person can accomplish.