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George Ter-Stepanian
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George Ter-Stepanian

(1907-2006)

PhotoGeorge Ter-Stepanian – Professor, Doctor of Technical Sciences, and Member of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia – passed away only a few months short of his 100th anniversary. He was an eminent scientist in the field of soil mechanics and engineering geology, one of the founders of the study of landslides, and the originator of the theories of depth creep of slopes, the structural composition of post-ice-age clay and suspension pressure acting against filtration.

The following biography, a brief description of G. Ter-Stepanian’s prolific scientific activity and academic achievements, is based on the autobiography that was prepared by G. Ter-Stepanian himself, not long before his passing, at the request of scientific and other organizations as part of preparations to honor the scientist on the occasion of his 100th anniversary.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian was born on April 16th, 1907, in Tiflis (Tbilisi), the largest city in the Caucasus region of the former Russian empire. His father was a veterinarian, and his mother, a teacher. He embarked upon his scientific work in 1930, at the Trans-Caucasian Institute of Buildings and Structures, while still a student of the Georgian Polytechnic Institute. From 1932 to 1941, he worked at various research institutes in Leningrad (Saint-Petersburg), doing research on landslides and pile foundations of bridges and laboratory studies of internal soil friction, meanwhile teaching in a professorial position at the Leningrad Civil Engineering Institute. From 1936 to 1939, he was dispatched to Iran, where he was in charge of the construction of elevators and other major structures in Tehran, Tabriz and Esfahan.

During Second World War, G. Ter-Stepanian headed up a group entrusted with making projections about landslide activation in strategically important military zones between the Caspian and the Black Seas. He was responsible for implementing landslide prevention measures that would allow the uninterrupted passage of military trains along the Trans-Caucasian railroad. In 1945, G. Ter-Stepanian was invited to the Institute of Geology of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, where he headed up the Sector for Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology, later reorganized to form the Laboratory of Geomechanics, which he directed until 1994.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian defended his PhD dissertation in 1939 and his post-doctoral dissertation in 1956, both at the Leningrad Civil Engineering Institute. In 1960, he earned the scientific rank of Professor, and, in 1977, he was elected a Corresponding Member of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia, becoming a Full Member in 1996.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian made major contributions to the fields of engineering geology, soil mechanics and geomechanics, as well as in the translation, standardization and introduction of scientific terminology. He also made a number of important discoveries in the fields of geology, rheology, geodesy, molecular physics and applied mathematics.

In the field of soil mechanics, G. Ter-Stepanian observed, as early as the thirties, the phenomenon of jump-like reorganization in soil structure along faults. He was the first to establish the metastability of the structure of high-sensitivity late-glacial marine clays and to develop methods of studying them, which proved to be of great economic importance.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian was among the founders of the emerging science of geomechanics, defining the key concepts and most important objectives of this new field during its formative stage. He studied the geological and rheological preconditions that cause landslides and proposed the theory of depth creep of slopes. The latter not only accounts for a number of slope phenomena, but facilitates the analysis of the landslide mechanism itself, allowing prognoses to be made regarding slope rupture and making landslide prevention work possible, which is done in the initial stage of depth creep when pressure on the slopes is strongest. The results of this work were published in the monograph “Contemporary Methods for the Prognosis of the Landslide Process” (Moscow, 1981).

Dr. Ter-Stepanian developed an economically expedient observational method for landslide prevention, which consists in the regular implementation of anti-landslide measures while simultaneously conducting observations of slope dynamics. This method is described in detail in the manuscript “Early Diagnostics and Treatment of Landslides”, which is being prepared for a posthumous publication.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian developed a detailed morphogenetic classification of landslide fissures and a classification of landslide deformations of buildings and other structures. Results were published in the monograph “On the Long-Term Stability of Slopes,” published in Russian (Yerevan, 1961), English (Oslo, 1963), and were also reported at several international congresses and symposiums.

In the field of geology, Dr. Ter-Stepanian was the first to suggest that salt tectonics were present in Armenia in 1958. Discovered first in Yerevan, this was subsequently confirmed by studying the mechanism of landslide burial in the High Pliocene Epoch in the ravine of the Razdan River and in the Ararat Valley. In 1984, Dr. Ter-Stepanian formulated the notion of the ‘Technogene’ – a new geological epoch that has resulted from the influence of human activity; this idea was developed in the monograph entitled “Beginning of the Quinary, or the ‘Technogene’: Engineering-geological Analysis” (Yerevan, 1985), and was also presented at several congresses and in scientific papers.

In the field of geomorphology, Dr. Ter-Stepanian isolated a new form of micro-relief in the form of accumulative ridges that are located along the entire length of slopes and related to the build-up of material along roads, balks and other obstacles.

In the field of hydrogeology, types of hydrogeological cross-sections in canyons were identified and described, which cut through basalts and clays lying beneath them. A piezometrical method was developed to carry out a field identification of the vertical total filtration pressure necessary to analyze the effective tension in the body of the landslide.

In engineering geology, Dr. Ter-Stepanian studied the properties of soil foundations of industrial, hydrotechnical and residential building sites on the territories of the former Soviet Union (Leningrad, Murmansk, Chita, Sochi, Yegorlyk, Armenia, Georgia, Volga River), and in Iran (Tabriz, Tehran, Esfahan, Mashhad). He developed an engineering geological map of the Soviet Republic of Armenia (M1:1 000 000). He also made a very important discovery for foundation engineering which was previously unknown in geology. This was a type of deposit accumulation formed in silty loams of foothill zones which is characterized by lack of subsidence, the degradation of which occurs as a result of moistening by precipitation or temporary water flows during the accumulation process.

In the field of engineering geodesy, G. Ter-Stepanian developed a graphical differential method for measuring landslide displacements based on the use of the nomogram. The results are summarized in the monograph “Geodetic Methods for Investigating the Dynamics of Landslides”, which was published in two editions in Russian (Moscow, 1972 and 1979) and in German (Leipzig, 1976).

In the field of molecular physics, Dr. Ter-Stepanian researched the conditions of the equilibrium of capillary systems, isolating the mechanisms of capillary-balanced fluids that are similar in external appearance, but behave differently. A unique landslide mechanism caused by capillary siphoning was discovered as well, by which water partly moves upward (to the surface) in the form of steam.

In the field of applied mathematics, a theory of chain nomograms with rectilinear scales was proposed, based on the application of new concepts – namely, the coefficient of scale and the dimensionless parameter of transformation. These allow to calculate algorithms and to compose rational nomograms for the functions of many variables. The results were included in the monograph “Engineering Chain Nomograms with Rectilinear Scales,” published in Yerevan in 1965. On the basis of the theory of nomograms, a method of projecting the anamorphosis of experimental curves to generate empirical formulas was developed, which allows the parameters of equations of rational-linear functions to be determined by grapho-analytical methods.

In the field of soil rheology, Dr. Ter-Stepanian proposed a structural theory of the depth creep of slopes that was confirmed by nearly six years of extensive experimental research. He described a field method by which to define the rheological attributes of soils based on the observation of the depth creep of slopes.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian provided explanations for many earlier misunderstood or previously undetected natural phenomena. These include establishing an avalanche mechanism for hydrodynamic mud flow, according to which the enigmatic behavior of mud flow (for instance, their ability to carry large boulders afloat, elevated clearly above the surface) can be explained by the impact of filtration pressure. He studied the particularities of the mechanisms of earthen streams and developed a method for drawing hodographs of the depth creep of slopes. He identified the causes for, and proposed a way to prevent, the destruction of inselbergs, explaining that this phenomenon was due to changes in temperature.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian’s greatest contribution was to the preservation of nature and the environment in Armenia. In a 1956 he voiced his opposition to the government’s decision to make extensive use of the water from Lake Sevan, a distinctive and unique high-mountain water source, for energy purposes. Using technical and economic projections, he demonstrated the error and the inexpediency of the project, warning that it would lead to the irreparable ruin of the lake. As a result of his intervention, the project was reviewed and the lake was saved.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Ter-Stepanian voiced his opposition to using the Ararat Valley (a seismically active zone containing the only artesian water source in the region and located only 26 kilometers from the Republic’s capital) as a building site for a new nuclear power plant, by pointing out the hazardous and irreversible consequences of such a decision; nevertheless, the project went ahead. However, when in the 1980s the construction of a radioactive dumpsite near the existing Armenian Nuclear Station was subsequently proposed, G. Ter-Stepanian launched a lengthy struggle involving the expertise of world-renowned scientists and global organizations, and succeeded to have the construction of the dump avert.

G. Ter-Stepanian is the author of ten monographs and more than 300 scientific articles, 80 of which were published outside of the former USSR. Although Dr. Ter-Stepanian contributed on many geotechnical topics in the West he is best known for his work on the creep and rheology of slopes and gravitational deformation of mountain slopes.

He holds patents in the USSR, including those for the creation of instruments and devices to study the physico-mechanical attributes of soils, as well as patents in the US (1999) and Canada (2001) for the invention of a method for the settling of suspensions with the use of seepage force and vibrations – an important discovery for environmental protection. Dr. Ter-Stepanian’s research results have been cited in reference and study materials. His research on the theory of landslide processes has been the subject of collaborative research with foreign scientific institutions.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian compiled the Russian section of the eight-language Dictionary of Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering - Technical Terms, Symbols and Definitions (Zurich, 1967; Toronto, 1981), published a dictionary of international symbols for soil mechanics and engineering geology in Russian and Armenian, and collaborated in the specification of international terminology for rock mechanics in English, French and German. He is the author of the only trilingual (English, Russian, Armenian) geological and geotechnical dictionary on terms and definitions, which is being prepared for a posthumous publication.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian participated as both plenary speaker and panel-session speaker at numerous international congresses, conferences and symposiums, providing presentations, informational reports and overviews of the state-of-the-art, etc. including the First International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering in 1936 at Cambridge, Massachusetts. He subsequently participated in the London (4th - 1957), Paris (5th - 1962), Montreal (6th - 1965), Mexico City (7th - 1969), Moscow (8th - 1973), Tokyo (9th- 1977), Stockholm (10th -1982), and San Francisco (11th -1985) conferences. He also contributed to early international conferences on Rock Mechanics (Lisbon, 1966 and Belgrade, 1970), on Engineering Geology (Paris 1970, San Paulo 1974, Madrid 1978, Athens 1997 and Vancouver 1998) and Landslides (Tokyo 1977, Prague 1977, New Delhi 1980, Toronto 1985, Lausanne 1988 and Trondheim 1996).

As a prominent specialist in the field of soil mechanics and engineering geology, he was invited frequently to give lectures in Japan, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and other countries.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian was highly involved in various Soviet and international scientific organizations. For several years, he was President of the Commission on Landslides and a Member of the Seismic and Mud Flow Commission of the USSR Academy of Sciences’ Scientific Committee on Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology. He was a member of the International Society of Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering and its terminological commission, the International Association of Engineering Geology and its Commission on Landslide and other Mass Movements, and the International Society on Rock Mechanics and its terminological commission. He was also a member of the joint bureau of the afore-mentioned three related international societies and the International Geotechnical Societies - UNESCO Working party on World Landslide Inventory.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian was the founder and chief editor of the trilingual (Armenian, Russian, English),   scientific journal “Problems of Geomechanics,” which received wide international recognition. Scientific articles written by major soviet and international scientists appeared in its numerous issues, published between 1967 and 1988.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian served as a member of the editorial board of the scientific journals “Géotechnique” (London), “Engineering Geology” (Moscow), “Studia geotechnica et mechanica” (Wroclaw) and “Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences of the Armenian Soviet Republic, Earth Sciences” (Yerevan). He has published more than 600 reviews in the journal “Geotechnical Abstracts,” published (in English and German) by the German National Committee on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering.

In 1989, Dr. Ter-Stepanian published a science-fiction novel entitled “Wiser than Humans” that focused on environmental protection, in which a scientist warns of impending total planetary destruction as a result of reckless human activity, and comes up with ways to save the planet. An updated and edited translation of the novel into English will come out in 2007.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian’s life has been persistently marked by intense creative activity, evidenced by his unyielding drive to solve pressing scientific and practical problems in soil mechanics, engineering geology and geomechanics with expertise of the highest caliber. Into his final days, he was steadfast in his attention to the future of our planet, resolute in his concern for the environmental catastrophe that threatens its future, and dedicated to the urgent need to take immediate steps to avert this tragedy from occurring.

In 1994 as a distinguish scientist Dr. Ter-Stepanian was granted the right of permanent residence in the United States and spent his final years with daughters in Connecticut and Montreal. George Ter-Stepanian passed away on Monday, December 4th, 2006, in the one hundredth year of a long and prolific life, surrounded by his loving family in Montreal (Canada), where he had spent his final years. On December 9th, relatives and friends of the Ter-Stepanian family gathered at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Cathedral in Montreal to bid farewell to the deceased. After a short service, Ms. Christine Mitchell, who translated Ter-Stepanian’s novel “Wiser than Humans” into English, addressed those in attendance, providing the professor’s biography and a summary of his scientific achievements. Following this, reflections and remembrances were shared by the younger daughter of the deceased, Dr. Anahit Ter-Stepanian, prolific sculptor Mr. Arto Tchakmakchian and his spouse Mrs. Nairi Tchakmakchian, and Professor Dora Sakayan. The body of Dr. Ter-Stepanian was later taken to Armenia, the land to which he had dedicated the greater part of his life, through his interests and his concerns, until his very final moments. The funeral ceremony took place on December 25th, at the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, where Professor Radik Martirosian (President and Member of the Academy of Sciences), Professor Vilen Hakopian (Member of the Academy of Sciences), Professor Ruben Jrbashian (Member of the Academy of Sciences), Professor Stepan Meschian, Professor Zaven Ter-Martirosian (Moscow) and others spoke about Dr. Ter-Stepanian’s immense contribution to the development of engineering geology and soil mechanics, as well as his role in environmental preservation in Armenia, remembering and celebrating his life as an educator, a mentor to young scholars, a man, a scientist and a citizen. George Ter-Stepanian was laid to rest in the family grave at Karmir Blur in Yerevan.

Dr. Ter-Stepanian's publications

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