Edward Melkonian (1920-1991)

Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering

Edward Melkonian was an American physicist. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt on June 29, 1920, to parents of Armenian heritage who had fled persecution in Turkey.

In 1921, the family moved to the United States, settling in West New York, New Jersey. A gifted student, Melkonian received a scholarship to attend Columbia University in 1937. He graduated from Columbia with a bachelor's degree in physics in 1940 and earned his master's degree the following year. Melkonian studied quantum mechanics under Enrico Fermi.

Melkonian's pursuit of his Ph.D. was interrupted by the U.S. entry into World War II and the launch of the Manhattan Project. During the war, his research focused on uranium isotope separation. He also worked at the Manhattan Project site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

After the end of World War II, he returned to graduate studies at Columbia where he received the Ph.D. degree in 1949. The subject of his research for the doctorate was the precise determination of the cross section for scattering of slow neutrons by free protons.  To this day, the accuracy of that measurement has not been surpassed despite introduction of rapidly improving techniques in the field of neutron physics. Together with subsequent measurements of the neutron-proton capture cross section in the epithermal energy range and of the scattering cross sections at higher energies he made with his students, it remains among the most important parameters that determine the fundamental interaction between neutrons and protons.

This began a career in which he was to become recognized as a world expert in neutron physics measurement. He extended measurements to more complex nuclei, studying reactions whose impact ranged from the design of nuclear energy systems to the physics of the structure of complex nuclei. His measurement of the neutron total cross section of bismuth provides a basis for the most accurate determination of the neutron-electron interaction.

His contributions to neutron physics, especially in the analysis of resonances in the neutron cross sections for very heavy nuclei, led to his choice as the one to write the definitive papers on those analyses in the several international Atoms for Peace Conferences.

As an exchange scientist with the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in England he pioneered in the development of semiconductor detectors for fission physics research. With this new tool, he was able to make measurements of features of the fission process which had previously been inaccessible. The information thus gained has enabled a considerably more refined description of the fission process than could otherwise have been achieved. In more recent years, with the diminution of research facilities at Columbia, his personal efforts began to focus increasingly on teaching, although he continued research as an advisor of doctoral students. His extreme criticality in evaluating his own work as well as that of his co-workers made him an authority on the validity of cross section measurements. Yet, his respect and concern for others, particularly for his students, was noteworthy.

Edward Melkonian was a man of very refined scholastic attitude and high integrity yet, at the same time, modest and unassuming. We who knew him well will not forget his warm and caring smile and his special way of responding to a question or request. One was always made to feel that he recognized that the question or request was important and worthy of his or anyone's attention. All of us have suffered a loss in his untimely passing.