Contemplating the fabric of the universe with Sinéad Mannion
I’d say about five minutes into my first physics class with Ms. Sweeney in Clifden Community School and I was hooked on Physics for life. I can remember that day so clearly, she drew a wave on the blackboard, and explained how by just using the wavelength and frequency one could calculate the speed. I was blown away and right there and then I could not think of anything else I’d rather do. Physics was perfect for me, it combined my two loves – maths and science. Physics get a bad rap for being a difficult subject, but to me all the other subjects in school were hard. Physics was either right or wrong, black of white, no in-between!
(The old Clifden Community School)
(My beloved Leaving Certificate Physics Book. I never returned it!)
Twenty years on and thankfully that love for physics is still there. My field of research is plasma physics. There are so many uses and applications of plasmas it is a very exciting field to be in.
Plasmas are the fourth state of matter, after solids, liquids and gases. A fire is a great example of a plasma, other naturally occurring examples of plasmas on Earth include aurora borealis (Northern Lights) and lightning. Plasmas have applications in plasma displays, neon lighting, fluorescent lights, plasma balls, computer chip fabrication and they are used to make the foil on the inside of crisp bags.
The holy grail of physics at the moment, is nuclear fusion, this involves fusing atoms together to release energy - unlike nuclear fission which splits the atom - there are no harmful by-products. Stars such as our sun generate heat by nuclear fusion, we can replicate this on Earth by using plasmas. The plasmas are heated to an extremely high temperature, this will cause the atoms to fuse. This will be a game changer eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels and therefore reduce global warming.
When describing my approach to Physics I would simply say brute force! I keep at something till I solve it, I cannot leave it, it consumes me. I could go through a whole day not eating or drinking just working on a problem. I’m so focused on something I forget to drink and a pile of cups surround my desk; this we call the ‘cold tea phase’. There is no greater feeling than solving something. It’s that feeling that keeps me motivated.
My main influence is my mother, Anne. She’s the smartest, most resilient, unassuming person I know. She appreciates the joy in the little things in life. She never gets bogged down and always has a smile.
My siblings Gearóid and Karen shaped my formative years, whilst I do not have their fire and creativity, some of their determination was worn off on me.
(Karen, Sinéad & Gearóid Mannion, 1984)
As I said earlier, Ms Breda Sweeney had a profound effect on my life, I cannot imagine my life without Physics. My current physics role model is my PhD supervisor Dr. Brian Reville, I will always be so grateful to him for taking me on and showing me a life I could only dream about – summer schools in Oxford, visiting the largest lasers in the world, nuclear fusion reactors and even a particle accelerator, hearing the top plasma physicists in the world at conferences to name just a few of the amazing things I have encounter since starting my PhD.
(At JET in Oxford, the largest Nuclear Fusion research site in the world, extremely disappointed that the fusion reactor is encased in concrete and all I saw was.....a wall!)
I’d have to say the highlight of my PhD to date was seeing the greatest living physicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell speak at a Women in Physics event. Dame Bell Burnell discovered pulsars (a rotating neutron star that emits radiation, like a lighthouse turning around) while doing her PhD in Cambridge. This is one of the greatest discoveries in 20th Century astrophysics. Her PhD supervisor won the Nobel Prize in Physics and she did not. Despite being overlooked she is not bitter about the whole thing. To her it’s all about the physics. The news coverage at the time was about what she wore and did she have a boyfriend, her supervisor was asked about the physics.
This year Dame Bell Burnell won the prestigious Breakthrough Prize in Physics, dubbed the Oscars of Science. She’s donating her prize money of $3 million to a fund for minorities underrepresented in physics.
(A young Jocelyn Bell with the radio telescope array she helped build at Cambridge)
I’m lucky to say so far I have never experienced any sexism in science but I am often the only woman in the room. Things are definitely improving for minorities in physics but it’s slow, there has to be a mind shift, girls perform just as well if not better than boys but they are not taking physics up in university, conversely mathematics has equal number of boys and girls. I have found in all the physics departments I’ve been at to be very warm and welcoming, my gender or disability have never been an issue, not being biased but physicists are sound bunch.
(Dr. Donna Strickland, 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics, for her research in laser physics. Only the 3rd woman ever to win the Nobel)
(Legendary Physicists left to right - Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Lise Meitner, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin & Jocelyn Bell)
I am currently a PhD student in the Centre for Plasma Physics at Queen’s University Belfast. Our project is simulating relativistic shock waves. We use mathematical models and high performance computers to simulate astrophysical events. Imagine a star collapsing and releasing a large burst of energy, this creates a shock wave, much like the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. This shock wave moves at speeds close to the speed of light. A lot of interesting phenomena occurs here and this throws up a lot of interesting physics.
My brother Gearóid who also had Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) died 25 years ago. SMA is a condition which affects the motor nerve cells in the spinal cord, causing difficulty in the ability to walk, move, eat, or breathe. Healthy people have two genes SMN1 and SMN2, in people with SMA do not have SMN1 meaning the nerve cells cannot function properly and they eventually die. This leads to a debilitating and sometimes fatal muscle weakening and wasting.
SMA affects approximately 1 in 11,000 babies, roughly 1 in every 40 Irish people is a carrier of this mutation. There are four types of SMA —I, II, III, and IV. Gearóid and I have SMA type II. Type I SMA is the number one genetic cause of death for infants.
(Gearóid Mannion at age 15)
(The book of his essays complied and edited by Karen & Sinéad Mannion)
We found old essays that Gearóid had wrote when he was in school in a cupboard under the sink. The essays were so witty and far beyond his 15 year old years. I decided to type them up as a present for my mother, one day I got an idea, to make them into a book and donate the proceeds to charity. The proceeds from the book all go to Muscular Dystrophy Ireland to lobby the Government to fund this life changing treatment here. Because I wanted to keep costs down so that as much money as possible would go to the charity, I decided to self-publish and so Plasma Publishing was born.
This coincided with a new treatment called Spinraza for people with SMA. Spinraza halts the progression of SMA by modifying the SMN1 gene. It is a life-changing treatment, children who receive the drug early enough are able to walk. Even if I got the treatment now at my age it would greatly improve my energy, my lung function and my quality of life. It is available in USA, Australia and 20 European countries but not Ireland. Incidentally, the scientists working on Spinraza also won the Breakthrough Prize last week. This to me proves how effective and ground breaking this treatment really is.
Sustainable living is to me is to keep ones impact to a minimum. Simple ideas like using a Keepcup, reusable bags, reusable straws, composting, buy loose vegetable and fruit, buy cardboard milk cartons instead of plastic ones can all add up and really make a difference. People just need to be organised and plan ahead. It is very upsetting to me to see all the litter in Connemara.
I suppose because we live so far away from anything, people here have more grit and yet can be more easy going. It’s a nice mix to have. For work it’s great, there are no distractions and on nice days there is nowhere better to be. When working on something, I love a long walk to percolate the idea, the new 2.5 hour walk on the Ballynahinch section of the Connemara Greenway is the ideal thinking ground.
Living in Connemara isn’t very accessible on four wheels but that has never stopped me, one of my most cherished memories is when my best friend Bobbi O’ Regan gave me a piggy back up the hill beside our house when we were 8 years old. It was heaven up there, the flowers and the birds, I realised there was a whole other life I was missing out on at ground level! Bobbi was never going to let me miss out on anything. That day to me was the start of our life time of adventures in both Connemara and beyond.
(Connemara Greenway at Ballinahinch)
I always buy Ohh! By Gum clothes for baby presents. I never buy plastic toys and opt for wooden instead. I always knit baby hats for all the new-borns, each baby has a unique stripy hat. I use Debbie Bliss Eco Baby wool which is so soft but also is fair-trade and ethically sourced.
I love clothes shopping, I’d like to think if I had to give up the physics in the morning I could be a personal shopper! As a child of the 90s I am still drawn to grunge, I wear only black, with the odd polka dot, floral or stripy print. I try to buy good quality pieces, I only wear black which for some reason is hard to source in more ethical brands. I’ve never been fond of Penney's but H&M was always my weakness, but knowing what we know about their employee treatment, their abuse of the environment etc I just cannot buy fast fashion any more.
(My godson, Charlie & I hanging out, in my black - scarf, skirt, Uggs uniform)
I’d give my kingdom to be able to wear coats! I’m always cold, I’d love to wear an amazing long elegant coat, 60’s style but can’t in wheelchair. Again as I’m always cold I live in Uggs, not very classy look that I’d want! I’m destined to look like an eternal 15 year old because I live in leggings, short skirts, Uggs, and extra-long scarves.
One tip or idea that you try include in your lifestyle that contributes to caring for the world around you?
I’m vegetarian slowly going vegan once I can find a cheese substitute I like, one of the best way to counter climate change is to give up meat and dairy.
Name one thing you are good at, one thing you could be better at, and one aspiration.
I’m a good problem solver, I’d like to be more creative and artistic and I’d gladly while my days doing maths wrapped up in a warm blanket drinking tea!
Copies of The Long Lost Stories of Gearóid P. Mannion can be found in the Clifden Bookshop on Main Street. Alternatively you can also purchase it as an e-book for your kindle on Amazon.
If you would like to make a donation to Muscular Dystrophy Ireland you can contact them on
01 623 6414
If you wish to support the #spinrazanow campaign, time is of the essence as a special review committee will be deciding whether or not it will be available in Ireland in the coming weeks. You can send a letter to your local TD using the attached template from the SMAIreland webpage