Around the Pier: Oceanographer Wins Award Named for His Next-Door Neighbor


Their offices are positioned for maximum sunshine under the skylights in the Revelle Lab on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, campus, but William Kuperman still senses the glow from his next-door neighbor Walter Munk.

To many, Munk owns the title “world’s greatest living oceanographer,” so it’s understandable when Kuperman, himself an oceanographer, acoustics expert and director of Scripps’s Marine Physical Laboratory, helps visitors find his office by suggesting they ask for directions to that of his famous neighbor.

As of Nov. 2, though, both are shining a little brighter. On that day, Kuperman won the Walter Munk Award.

The award, granted jointly by The Oceanography Society, the Office of Naval Research, and the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy, honors “significant original contributions to the understanding of physical ocean processes related to sound in the sea,” according to the society. Kuperman’s citation describes him as being “at the forefront of a revolution in our understanding of wave scattering physics.”

“Practitioners now use chaotic scattering fields as coherent lenses and random noises as coherent sources,” the citation said. “Complex propagation environments that once confounded the interpretation of received signals are now are said to ‘enrich their information content.’ Bill and colleagues have discovered how to extract this information and are opening new avenues for the remote sensing of the ocean. For oceanographers, the benefits of this revolution are just emerging.”

Kuperman came to Scripps in 1992. Like Munk, he’s been named as a Secretary of the Navy/Chief of Naval Operations Chair for Ocean Science, receiving the distinction in 2004. His adventures in acoustics haven’t been limited to studying how sound propagates through the ocean water column. After a leg injury of his own, he got the idea to see if listening to body noises could yield valuable information about muscular flexibility. He co-authored a published paper on the results after affixing an acoustic array – much smaller than the ones he deploys in the oceans – onto a postdoctoral researcher’s leg.

Maintaining a humble outlook, Kuperman said the award acknowledges as much the ensemble effort of Scripps researchers in the field of marine acoustics as his own accomplishments.

“It’s a statement,” Kuperman said. “In using sound to study the ocean, Scripps is a major player in the eyes of our peers.”

Kuperman received the award at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, which has an arrangement with The Oceanography Society to host Munk Award presentations. Munk himself was the first winner of the award when it was introduced in 1993.  Scripps oceanographers Rob Pinkel and Peter Worcester (who works two doors down from Munk) have also won the award.

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