Born in Moundsville, West Virginia, his early scientific interest was in physical chemistry, but later changed to study physics at Bethany College in West Virginia.
He became active in the antiwar and educational movements of the 60’s, and was drawn into the Unitarian ministry. He attended Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California and was minister in Tampa, Florida for 7 years. During this time he continued his interest in physics. In 1977 he entered the physics program at the University of Texas at Austin where he met and quickly decided to work with noted cosmologist Dennis W. Sciama. He was among one of three groups who had initiated the numerical simulation of the formation of structure in a Universe dominated by dark matter.
He received his Ph.D. in 1981, and followed with postdoctoral work with Arthur M. Wolfe at Pittsburgh, with the group of Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich in Moscow, and as Enrico Fermi Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago. In 1986 he joined the faculty of the University of Kansas, where he has been ever since.
In 1998-2001, he was active in the “controversy” surrounding evolution in the public school curriculum in Kansas. In 2002, he received the Joseph Burton Forum Award for his central role in organizing public support for the return of modern evolutionary biology to the Kansas public school curriculum
He is married to Gillian, and has two sons, Christopher and Jesse.
His work in dark matter focused on the formation of what has come to be called the “cosmic web” from Zeldovich pancakes. In 1983, before the existence of such structure was generally accepted, he and collaborators predicted its existence in a Universe dominated by cold dark matter. Later in the 80’s, he worked with J. Richard Gott on the topology of large-scale structure, then with Sergei Shandarin on the merging of hierarchical clustering models with the Zel’dovich pancake picture as a description of large-scale structure.
Beginning in 2003, he made an abrupt transition into a new area which began by examining the effects the radiation from a gamma-ray burst would have upon the Earth, and attempting to draw a connection with past mass extinction events. This has branched out into examination of comet impacts, solar flares, and other phenomenae. He showed that a 63 million-year oscillation in fossil biodiversity cuts across a variety of data sets and has found clues to its cause, which, however, is still an unsolved problem.
Melott is a member of the Paleontological Society. He was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society “For groundbreaking studies of the origin and evolution of cosmic structure” in 1996, and received its Joseph Burton Forum award for his educational work in 2003. In 2007, he was elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science “For distinguished contributions to cosmological large-scale structure, for organizing public support for teaching evolution, and for interdisciplinary research on astrophysical impacts on the biosphere.”