Obituary Notice: Ken Melville, 1946-2019

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Ken Melville, a distinguished professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego who made profound contributions to science’s understanding of waves and the interaction of ocean and atmosphere, died Oct. 16 after a long illness. He was 73.

Melville was also a leader of Scripps Oceanography at several points in his career, serving as deputy director of research, chair of Scripps’ education office known as the SIO Department, and in other administrative roles.

Melville was a pioneering researcher, combining fundamental theoretical insights with innovative use of technology to transform our understanding of the application of fluid mechanics to oceanography, especially in air-sea interaction, acoustic and microwave remote sensing, and ocean waves.

“As well as the practical impact of Melville's pioneering fluid dynamics work on the globally important field of air-sea interaction,” said late Scripps geophysicist Walter Munk in nominating Melville for the 2016 Batchelor Prize, which is awarded for research in fluid mechanics, “the simplicity of his approach here, building on the classical work of [Geoffrey Ingram] Taylor, is a strong reminder that in a field of increasingly complex fluid dynamical problems, there is still an important role for the simpler classical approaches of G.I. and George [Batchelor] that I learned to admire.”

W. Kendall Melville was born in Sydney, Australia on June 17, 1946.  He received BSc, BE, and MEngSc degrees from the University of Sydney, and in 1974, a PhD in aeronautics and astronautics from Southampton University in the United Kingdom. He moved from Australia to the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps, where he served from 1977 to 1980. He then took a faculty position at MIT, participating in the MIT-Woods Hole Joint Program until he returned to Scripps in 1991.

During his career at MIT and Scripps, Ken supervised 20 doctoral students.

“I was mentored by Ken as his student 27 years ago around the time he arrived back at Scripps, and my career has forever been influenced in immeasurable ways that took decades for me to fully appreciate,” said physical oceanographer Eric Terrill, director of the Coastal Observing Research and Development Center at Scripps.

“He was the best advisor a student can wish for, generous and fair,” said Alexey Fedorov, an oceanographer at Yale University. “I always felt safe and protected - as long as you work hard and try your best, you don’t worry about anything. During my years at Scripps he was like a second father to me.”

In addition to other administrative roles, Ken served as director of the Joint Institute for Marine Observations, a collaboration with NOAA. He was also an affiliated professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC San Diego.

Among his many honors, Ken was a fellow of both the Acoustical Society of America and the American Physical Society. He was a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Sverdrup Gold Medal from the American Meteorological Society.

“Fifteen years working side by side with him has been a privilege and an honor, and I will miss him dearly,” said Scripps oceanographer Luc Lenain, a member of Melville’s research team. “‘What else?’ as he liked to say at the end of a meeting. Well, as I promised him shortly before he passed, we, his team, students and collaborators will carry on his legacy, continuing the work that he had so brilliantly started.”

Melville is survived by his wife of 40 years, Dr. Sabina Wallach of La Jolla, daughter Rebecca of Los Angeles, son Adam of La Jolla, daughter Alexia of Denver, and two grandsons. 

Arrangements for a celebration of life ceremony are pending.

 

Tributes

 

I could express my feelings, but, as chairman of the wave modeling community, WISE, who meets once a year to frame the related state of the art, I prefer to talk for all of us, sure to express what all of us perceive and feel in this moment.

Ken has not attended the WISE meeting for a while, but his students, reporting the work with Ken, have been a constant contribution to keep up the quality of the meeting. Ken has always focused on the physics of the wave processes, with a series of carefully planned and highly technical measurements in the field. He has never been a show-man and he did not

need to be. His results, mostly by his students during the last ten years or so, but always under his guide, were not done to impress the superficial reader, but they were for the experts, touching the key points of what is going on at the interface between the sea and the atmosphere, this key boundary so important for all the problems that affect our loved Earth.

When a man, a scientist like Ken disappears, apart from the personal fact, I, we wonder what next after him. Most of us are in contact with many colleagues who are more or less doing our same thing, possibly somewhere else, possibly for another storm or another statistics. Ken was alone and I, we wonder who will be able to take his role. Surely he has given life to many young plants on his more than 40 year career. It is up to them, or to some of them, taking advantage of his school, to pursue the research he had in mind pushing in the pure research direction he has always been so fond of.

– Luigi Cavaleri, Institute of Marine Sciences, Venice, Italy

 

From predictions of wave heights on World War II invasion beaches to the accumulation of heat and carbon dioxide in the global climate system, much of the ocean’s impact on people depends on how it interacts with the atmosphere.  Professor Ken Melville was a world leader in measuring and understanding this interaction. While Hollywood might portray such observers as bearded, steely-eyed men standing at a ship’s rail staring across a stormy sea, today’s leaders devise and deploy myriad types of unmanned instruments to measure autonomously over large areas and long periods. Melville was recognized for developing such instruments, using them to measure air-sea interaction, and unravelling the measurements to understand them.  

When he returned in 1991 to Scripps as professor of physical oceanography, air-sea interaction science was scattered between theory, modeling, and laboratory and field observation.  Ken attracted students with whom he devised new ways to observe field and laboratory wave fields as well as manipulate these fields to describe their dynamics. Ken’s group was the world leader in developing autonomous vehicles to observe large areas for long times (e.g. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles launched at sea to observe wave fields, long-range wave-powered “wave gliders”), gathered elaborate time series of the lower atmosphere from the Floating Instrument Platform spar-buoy FLIP, and measured near-surface velocity under waves using bubble velocimetry.  These were not adaptations of known instruments to the air-sea interfacial region, they were parts of a massive and inventive new program to develop tools and methods.

Professor Melville’s colleagues are distraught with his passing, but take heart at how he has left a marvelous collection of observing methods and a team of former students to carry on his ocean work.

Russ Davis, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

 


I was a postdoctoral researcher with Ken from 2013 to 2016 before moving to an assistant professor faculty position at Princeton University, with a joint appointment in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Princeton Environmental Institute.


Ken was a wonderful person, mentor and scientist and I will miss him greatly. I am grateful for his kindness, support and generosity. His vision and his quest for simplicity in describing fluid mechanics problems associated with ocean-atmosphere interaction have greatly inspired me and will continue to inspire my work in the future. I feel that I have learned to perform research and science at the highest level of rigor and passion during my years working with Ken, and this is something I aim to achieve throughout my career with my own students. 
My thoughts are with his family.

– Luc Deike, Princeton University
 

Ken Melville made groundbreaking observations of the dynamic ocean surface: not just waves, but sea spray and foam and their complex interaction with the winds that create them. Ken’s contributions to our understanding of air-sea interactions has been a central element of ONR research for decades. A keen theoretician, experimentalist and ocean observer, Ken’s research record and the students he mentored are an outstanding legacy to his career.   – Tom Drake, Office of Naval Research  

He was the best advisor a student can wish for, generous and fair. I always felt safe and protected--as long as you work hard and try your best, you don’t worry about anything. During my years at Scripps he was like a second father to me.

The other day I was sending an email to my former PhD student who is now applying for faculty jobs, and I realized that I was giving him advice that Ken had given me two decades ago.

I remember our first meeting--I had an interview--he was very tall, forceful but not imposing. I don’t remember what we talked about but I remember the feeling - everything will be alright. Indeed, I was accepted to Scripps.

Ken has made profound contributions to his field, not only through his research, but also through the training of generations of former students. Many are now also working in the field and making their own marks. I feel privileged to have worked with him, as a student and later a colleague.  His enthusiasm for scientific discovery was contagious, and his dedication to high standards, other ethically and scientifically, was exemplary. I relied on him for advice far beyond my years as a student. We had frequent discussions about recent papers, work with could and should do together, and balancing career path and family life in general. Ken was an outstanding scientist, a dear colleague, and a precious mentor. I will miss him dearly!

He had a heightened sense of responsibilities as a professor and a scientist. At some point he asked me to give several lectures in his course on nonlinear ocean waves. I did alright, but I got tired and cut short one of the lectures by ten or so minutes. Afterwards Ken told me in very simple terms--as a teacher you have the duty to finish the lecture, whatever the circumstances.

He was a great and decent man.

– Alexey Fedorov, Yale University 

 

We here in the fluids group at University of Oslo, Norway, are shocked by the message that Ken Melville passed away yesterday. I have had encounters with Ken ever since I was a scholar at MIT in 1987/88 and have benefited incredibly much from his leadership and how he showed the way in the wave studies. He was a giant of mild character. I had a sabbatical with him during fall 2007 and enjoyed Thanksgiving with the Melville family then. It was very memorable. 

– John Grue, Univeristy of Oslo

 

I consider myself lucky to have arrived at MIT just ahead of Ken. My first substantial encounter with him was when I took his class on stratified flows. It was an eye-opener for me and it changed my path of my career. He was a fantastic, supportive PhD advisor with the ability to be both challenging and encouraging in the right combination. Ken leaves a legacy of truly significant and innovative work on air-sea interaction along with a large group of former students and colleagues who have benefited immensely from his guidance, collaboration, and friendship. I certainly include myself in that group. Over the many years since MIT I have always looked forward to seeing Ken and Sabina when our paths crossed and am immensely sad that he won’t be there in the future.

– Karl Helfrich, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA

 


During his incredible career, Ken tackled some of the most complex research problems, combining fundamental theoretical insights with innovative use of technology, laboratory and field observations to transform our understanding of air-sea interaction, ocean waves, wave breaking and physical oceanography. He did this with elegance, passion, determination, contagious enthusiasm, integrity and humility. Fifteen years working side by side with him has been a privilege and an honor, and I will miss him dearly. “What else?” as he liked to say at the end of a meeting. Well, as I promised him shortly before he passed, we, his team, students and collaborators will carry on his legacy, continuing the work that he had so brilliantly started.

– Luc Lenain, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

 

Thank you, Ken, for being “crazy” enough to research on one of the most, if not THE most, challenging problem in Physical Oceanography: effects of breaking waves on a variety of ocean surface processes. Without you, as a person, and your seminal research contributions our lives would not have been and will not be the same.

– Ole Madsen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 


 

I am forever indebted to Ken by having a several years' opportunity to work closely with him. It was my very best years working in physical oceanography - enjoyed every part of it, from the conception of a research project to building equipment for the experiment to figuring out the algorithms to process the data to writing the paper. Ken offered a very unique outlook to any of these aspects of scientific work, something I cherish and will never forget.

I hope I carried along whatever I learned from Ken Melville to various other fun projects I had in my career.

I feel a great void with Ken's passing away - something I felt I was a part of is no longer here. My sincerest condolences to the family - and to Melville lab at Scripps.

 – Peter Matusov, SlantRange, Inc. 


 

Ken arrived at Scripps in early 1977 to take up a postdoc with John Miles. I had already spent 12 months as a postdoc in ORD and as Ken and I shared an accent, we got together for a run on the beach or socially at the old TGIF quite often. Early friends of both of us included Russ Davis and Ray Weiss, who also helped out with advice on deciphering the needs of NSF and in Ken’s case ONR as well, and for free tutoring on California culture and La Jolla restaurants.   Ken prospered under John’s tutelage and started to take on John’s work ethic and habits, buying a second copy of Owen Phillip’s book so he could have one at home as well. After Sabina arrived in 1978, social life in La Jolla became well entrenched and Ken made some major contributions, building his laboratory sills which would serve him well for future research. We parted ways with Ken heading off to MIT and me back to UNSW in Sydney in 1980.

Years passed but we kept in touch as friends until 2007 when we decided to have a crack at joint funding to support a study of winds, waves and currents around Lady Elliot Island (LEI) in the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Success in funding saw us and our teams inhabit LEI for almost a month in 2008. Now it is tough when you have to live at a Resort, eating only Resort tucker and having only the one bar (the Lagoon Bar) to inhabit in the evenings. Ken soldiered on, and put up with these terrible conditions without complaint.  Some innovative papers resulted, and allowed us to justify our Resort accommodation bills.

Over the last few years we have shared the common interest of airborne research, with both of us deploying Lidar systems in light aircraft to document and understand change in beach systems.

Ken’s congenial style has always been underpinned by a quiet but determined ambition which has driven his research to great heights, as exemplified by the turnout of so many researchers for the recent Symposium in his honour. He has been a long and valued friend for decades, and I will always remember the two of us enjoying the sunsets on LEI with a cold beer in hand. I will miss him.

– Jason Middleton, University of New South Wales


 

I was fortunate enough to work with Ken for the past ten years. First, as his PhD student, and subsequently as his postdoc and project scientist. For many years, my meetings with Ken were the highlight of my week. His curiosity, generosity, and humility serve as a moral north star for myself and many, and I am grateful to have this bright light to steer towards in my life. His absence, like his laugh, is boundless, but we know that as long as we continue to apply the lessons he taught us, he will never truly be gone.

I would like to include a poem that Ken and I discussed and enjoyed, and I believe epitomized what Ken taught me about science.

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman

 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

– Nick Pizzo, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

 

Ken's passion for the ocean sciences and education of the next generation was only eclipsed by the love he had for his wife Sabina and  three children. I was mentored by Ken as his student 27 years ago around the time he arrived back at Scripps, and my career has forever been influenced in immeasurable ways that took decades for me to fully appreciate.  Rigor, passion, integrity, and tenacity were hallmark values that Ken taught by example. He will be sorely missed.

– Eric Terrill, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego


 

Ken has made profound contributions to his field, not only through his research, but also through the training of generations of former students. Many are now also working in the field and making their own marks. I feel privileged to have worked with him, as a student and later a colleague.  His enthusiasm for scientific discovery was contagious, and his dedication to high standards, other ethically and scientifically, was exemplary. I relied on him for advice far beyond my years as a student. We had frequent discussions about recent papers, work with could and should do together, and balancing career path and family life in general. Ken was an outstanding scientist, a dear colleague, and a precious mentor. I will miss him dearly!

– Fabrice Veron, University of Delaware

 

On behalf of Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI), National University of Singapore (NUS), I would like to express our deepest condolences to Ken’s family! I have the privilege to meet Ken during a visit with my colleagues to SIO in 2014, with the help from Lanna Cheng. Ken left an impression on me of a brilliant scientist. During our meeting, he enthusiastically explained to me his research on how to quantify the different atmospheric gases above the sea surface. Before he moved to Scripps, he was teaching in MIT and our former Director Eng Soon Chan was one of his students there. Ken is recognized as the top oceanographer in the world and his research contributions will remind us from time to time when we look back in the literature!

– Sek-Man Wong, National University of Singapore 



 

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