This Week in Armenian History


Victor Hambartsumian was the greatest Armenian name in the field of astronomy and his student Beniamin Markarian became his most important follower. The Markarian galaxies are known to every astronomer. Now they are known to non-astronomers too: in 2017 New York-based designer Alexandra O’Neill founded luxury womenswear Markarian, which she named for the special level of radiance of those galaxies. 

Markarian was born on December 12, 1913, in Shulaver (nowadays Shahumyan), a village of the district of Marneuli (Georgia). He was admitted to the faculty of Physics-Mathematics of Yerevan State University in 1933 and graduated in 1938 with a diploma of excellence. He worked as a senior lecturer of higher mathematics at Yerevan Pedagogical Institute and the following year he entered the post-graduate fellowship of astrophysics in the Armenian branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. After serving in the army during World War II in 1941-1942, he returned to Yerevan and became a senior researcher at the Yerevan Astronomical Observatory (1942-1946).  

Markarian defended his candidate (Ph.D.) dissertation on “The Fluctuations Observed in the Visible Distribution of Stars and the Cosmic Absorption,” under Hambartsumian’s supervision, in May 1944. He became one of the founders and senior researcher at the Byurakan astrophysical observatory in 1946. He participated in the selection of the site for the new observatory and personally mounted and put almost all telescopes into operation, thus establishing the grounds for the development of observational astronomy in Armenia. In 1950 he won the State Prize of the Soviet Union.

The astronomer worked as a deputy director on science at Byurakan from 1953 to 1956 and then he was appointed head of the department of investigation of stars (1957-1962) and the department of galaxies (1962-1985). He was also a lecturer of astronomy at Yerevan State University between 1943 and 1956. He was elected as a corresponding member (1965) and full member of the Academy of Sciences of Armenia (1971), and was awarded the title of Emeritus Scientist of Armenia (1961). He earned a number of decorations, medals, and diplomas. As a member of the the International Astronomical Union since 1955), Markarian was vicepresident (1973-1976) and then president of its Commission on Galaxies. 

His scientific works were related to the physics of stars, stellar clusters, and galaxies. He confirmed, based on observation data, that stellar associations expand. He worked out a new classification of stellar clusters and in 1963 he discovered 73 galaxies with an unusual color in their spectral class. Thanks to his special method, the Byurakan observatory carried out a spectral sky survey between 1965-1980. Markarian discovered 1,500 objects of a special class, which are called Markarian galaxies after him. The spectral observation of those galaxies, executed from 1968 onwards with the help of large telescopes in the Soviet Union and the United States, discovered a great number of active galaxies, changing our understanding about the population of the Universe and galactic activity. From 1974 to 1991, thanks again to Markarian’s initiative, the second Byurakan survey revealed a big number of quasars and other active galactic nuclei. The catalogue of Markarian galaxies was published by his colleagues in the United States (1986) and the Soviet Union (in 1989) after his death on September 30, 1985.