Just because he turned 96 last month doesn’t mean that Walter Munk and his life of learning and adventure will slow down anytime soon.
Acclaimed across the globe as the “world’s greatest living oceanographer,” Munk stubbornly refuses to lessen his pace or activities in these nonagenarian days, whether it’s regularly coming into his Scripps office for research, attending scientific lectures, or sharing a story and a smile at the UC San Diego events he attends regularly with his wife Mary Coakley Munk and university friends and colleagues.
His expeditions at sea may not be as numerous as in his younger days, but Munk’s travels to points near and far continue unabated.
Last November he flew by helicopter 70 miles off the Japanese coast for a stay aboard the Japanese deep-sea drilling vessel Chikyu. The trip culminated with a celebration of Chikyu’s science room being christened as the “Walter Munk Library,” the latest in a long, jaw-dropping list of the esteemed geophysics professor’s awards and achievements. On the flipside, there is a medal bestowed in his honor; since 1993 The Oceanography Society, the Office of Naval Research, and the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy have given the “Walter Munk Award” for notable achievements in oceanography.
Ever humble, ever sharing the limelight with others, Munk will be thrust squarely into the spotlight on Nov. 16 during UC San Diego’s Founders’ Celebration Dinner, where Munk will receive the prestigious Roger Revelle Medal, an honor that stands apart from his previous awards.
Officially, the Roger Revelle Medal will be given to Munk “in honor of his achievements and impact advancing the UC San Diego mission.” But privately the award touches upon Munk’s personal camaraderie and collegiality with Revelle that blossomed over decades, an era in which Scripps similarly prospered in the “golden age of oceanography.” Long before Revelle founded UC San Diego, he spent countless hours alongside Munk at sea and at Scripps as a trusted colleague and close friend.
“Roger was my best friend and the person who had the greatest influence on my career,” said Munk, who received his Ph.D. from Scripps in 1947 and is celebrating his 75th year at the institution.
“Walter Munk is a shining example of Scripps Oceanography’s leadership in ocean and earth science,” said Margaret Leinen, director of Scripps. “Whether it was contributions to predicting surf conditions for Allied landings in World War II, or making groundbreaking contributions to the science of tides and currents, Walter is a true living treasure of Scripps’s history.”
The Revelle Medal, which has not been awarded in more than a decade, is the highest honor given by the UC San Diego Chancellor to members of the university’s faculty. Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla recently revived the medal to recognize “sustained, distinguished, and extraordinary service to the campus.”
“It was Roger Revelle’s vision to create a distinctive university by recruiting exceptional faculty from around the world, and that is what led to UC San Diego’s rise to preeminence,” said Khosla. “I cannot think of anyone more fitting to receive the Roger Revelle Medal than Walter Munk. Through his long and illustrious career, Walter has made remarkable discoveries that have helped position UC San Diego as an international leader in ocean science.”
Munk fondly looks back on the Scripps campus of 1939, with all of 15 people, and compares it with today’s bustling Scripps campus with 1,600 people, as two immensely different places. But he is quick to note that he “loves them both.” In his vast list of scientific achievements and contributions to the campus, Munk is most proud of his leadership in the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) at Scripps, an “institute within an institute.”
But, as is his defining character, Munk gives credit elsewhere, this time to the person whose face will be emblazoned upon the medal that he will soon receive.
“Roger was the one who made (IGPP) possible,” said Munk. “Roger had a great influence on me. It turned into a lifelong friendship and a very essential development in my life.”
-- Mario C. Aguilera