Last week Professor Sir David Mackay died from stomach cancer aged just 48. He was a physicist who was famous for his work on clarifying the energy debate.
My husband alerted me to Prof MacKay’s work. As an undergrad at Cambridge he was lectured by the Professor and he told me how Prof MacKay seemed to genuinely care about his students and would come and sit with them at lunchtimes. This is rare in the Oxbridge world, which is set up as a hierarchy with separate rooms, tables and social gatherings for students and professors.
So when he came to speak locally on his energy work, we went to see him. I was struck by how clear and engaging he was. He used information for exactly what it should be used for – providing clarity and truth.
His obituary is here and describes his life’s work. Essentially he explained energy usage using a single metric – the amount of energy used by a lightbulb. Suddenly what mattered and what didn’t in the energy debate became crystal clear. He wrote all of his findings in a book, which he made freely available through his website. Public outreach and truth seemed to matter to him, as far as I can tell.
At the moment I am trying to extend my research funding (I currently have no job from Jan 2017), and I am grappling with the realities of academia. I want to do research that matters, and I want it to make a difference, but that is not always possible – especially at my level. Having heard people like David MacKay speak has helped me realise that this doesn’t have to be as distant and naive a dream as it feels. Although I may never achieve what he did, knowing that it’s possible somehow makes me feel that it’s not a pointless goal.
In academia we are constantly trying to prove ourselves to other academics. At the same time, we have to produce research that helps society (particularly in the field of public health – what’s the point otherwise?) David MacKay made me realise that fundamentally, using your skills in the best way you know how is enough to be a useful person – and maybe that’s what really matters.
I think that is a message for all of us, so from this academic wondering if making a difference is possible, thank you for showing us how it’s done.