Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Death of Sergey Mergelyan (August 20, 2008)

Sergey Mergelyan was an outstanding, world-famous mathematician, who established the grounds for the development of information technology in Armenia.

He was born in Simferopol, Crimea (then Russia), on May 19, 1928. His father Mkrtich Mergelov was born in Akhalkalak (Javakhk), and his mother Ludmila was Russian. Mergelov founded a factory of paper in 1936, but he was exiled to Siberia with his family for engaging in private economic activities. His wife and son were somehow able to return after a year of exile. Later, he was also freed and, before the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, he met by chance Kristapor Toumanian, deputy commissar (minister) of Industrial Cooperation of Armenia, who suggested that he come to Armenia and found a factory for the production of cartons. In late 1941 the Mergelovs moved to Yerevan.

It was a completely foreign environment for the Russian-educated young Sergey, who knew no Armenian and was unaware of Armenian culture. But he went on to become a perfect speaker of the language, with deep feeling for the culture of his people. Years later, his surname would become Mergelyan.

He showed his precocious talent in school years. He won the republican Olympics of mathematics and physics when an eighth grader at Mravian School. Afterwards, he rendered the exams for ninth and tenth grades, and entered the School of Physics and Mathematics of Yerevan State University in 1944, at the age of sixteen.

He passed the first year and most of the second year courses in one year, and started attending third year courses. Mergelyan graduated in three and a half years, instead of the normal five, and in 1947 he was sent to Moscow for graduate work at the Steklov Mathematics Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union (now the Russian Academy of Sciences). Just two years later, on February 19, 1949, he defended his Ph.D. dissertation on the approximation theory in mathematical functions. The scientific council of the institute assessed it as a study of exceptional value, and unanimously awarded him both Ph.D. and Doctor of Science degrees. The acquisition of the highest degree of Doctor of Science at the age of twenty-one became a record, unbeaten to this day, in the former USSR and present-day Russia.

In 1951 Mergelyan developed a powerful method that allowed him to demonstrate his famous theorem of approximation by polynomials (the “Mergelyan theorem”), giving the ultimate solution to a chain of studies started in 1885 by mathematicians Karl Weierstrass and Carl Runge. Later works would include theory of functions of complex variables, theory of approximation, and theory of potential and harmonic functions. His work would lay the ground for the modern complex approximation theory.

Mergelyan won the USSR State Prize in 1952, and the following year he established another unbroken record as he became a corresponding member of the Soviet and the Armenian Academies of Sciences at the age of twenty-five. This was an honor, whether in Russia or in Armenia, that many remarkable scientists were unable to achieve in their entire lifetime. The young mathematician was a poster boy for propaganda of Soviet science abroad during the next decades.

In 1956 Mergelyan became a full member of the Academy of Sciences of Armenia and the founding director of the Yerevan Scientific Research Institute of Mathematical Machines (popularly known as the Mergelyan Institute), an important research facility at Soviet level and a pioneer of the informational technology and software industry in Armenia. At the same time, he taught at Yerevan State University and at the Yerevan Pedagogical Institute. In 1961 he moved to Moscow as deputy academician-secretary of the Mathematics Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, where he created and directed the section of complex analysis until 1970.

He returned to Armenia as vice-president of the Armenian Academy of Sciences (1971-1974), and was also chair of Numerical Analysis at Yerevan State University (1972-1979). However, envy and slander would pursue him for the next fifteen years. He was demoted to director of the Computing Center of the Academy (1974-1979), and sector head of the Mathematics Institute (1979-1982). In the end, he would be designated rector of the Pedagogical Institute of Kirovakan (nowadays Vanadzor) from 1982-1986, a minor position in the third city of Armenia that was unbecoming of his status. In 1986 he left Armenia and returned to Russia, where he taught at Moscow State University and worked at the Mathematics Institute.

In the 1990s Mergelyan received an invitation to teach in the United States, first at Brown University and then at Cornell University. After a three-year stint, he returned to Moscow, but in the end he came back to America in 1996 with his wife Lidia, and settled in Sacramento. There was a failed attempt to have him return to Armenia in the late 1990s; his wife was already gravely ill with cancer and needed constant medical oversight, and the harsh experience of the 1970-1980s had deeply scarred the elder scientist.

Mergelyan’s wife passed away in 2002, and the mathematician moved to Los Angeles. On his eightieth birthday, he received the medal “Mesrop Mashtots” from the government of the Republic of Armenia in May 2008, and his jubilee was celebrated by the Academy of Sciences, a few days later. These final acts of recognition came in the last stage of his life. He died on August 20, 2008. According to his last will, he was buried at the Novodevichie Memorial Cemetery in Moscow, Russia, along his wife and mother. His legacy lives in the generations of students formed by him, and in the institute founded by him in Yerevan, popularly known as “Mergelyan’s Institute,” although it does not officially bear his name.