Ian Mann

Top 40 Under 40 2009

Photography 3TEN

Age: 39

Job Title: Professor of physics, University of Alberta

Why He’s a Top 40: For working to strengthen Canada’s position on the global space frontier and connecting us to the cosmos

Many of us have lent a curious gaze to a night sky and looked upon the celestial glow emitted from the northern lights. Some of us have even witnessed them transform from gentle green waves into frantic pink and purple brush strokes moving sporadically across the sky. Scientists have yet to fully understand what causes those green arcs to transform into frenzied explosions, but the transition is exactly what Ian Mann, physics professor at the University of Alberta, studies for a living. “I’m focused on scientific discovery to figure out how the wonders of nature really work,” Mann says.

His work with NASA’s THEMIS mission (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms) allows him to study auroras from Edmonton. With the help of five satellites currently orbiting in near-Earth space, Mann has been monitoring the auroras since 2007. By studying how the sun influences the atmosphere, he is working to discover methods to forecast space weather. That’s why he takes his discoveries to conferences across the globe, from Europe to India.

“Living here gives me the opportunity to see this beautiful natural phenomenon,” says Mann, who grew up in England. “The way the lights dance across the sky is one of the most beautiful things in all of nature, and one of the best places in the world to see auroras is in Canada.”

Aside from being fascinating to almost every person at every age, Mann’s work has a practical purpose: space weather can damage the satellites we use for mobile communications, as well as one of the most utilized technologies since the Internet – GPS satellites. Mann analyzes the data collected by THEMIS mission satellites that are flown straight into space disturbances.

“Space is really cool, and it’s fantastic that the University of Alberta is making these strides,” he says, adding that Alberta has the opportunity to develop a larger industrial footprint in space.

But first, you have to get people enamoured with the universe from a scientific and hands-on perspective. It’s the key to expanding interest in space. That’s why Mann’s space academy for junior high students this past summer gave them the opportunity to build and fire rockets and to touch meteorites billions of years old – because it’s one thing to find these curiosities intriguing, but another thing to seek answers and understand the how and why.

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