Walter Munk’s students, colleagues and community share how they have been inspired by this living legend

Gordon O. Williams, PhD ’75 (Oceanography)

The Graduate Seminar
Not long after Walter agreed to take me on as a graduate student, we went together to a graduate seminar on the upper campus.  I don’t remember which department it was, nor do I remember the topic that was discussed.  What has stuck in my mind ever since was that Walter was absolutely fearless in asking questions to clarify the topic in his mind.We sat in the back of the room.  At intervals, Walter would raise his hand and ask a question.  Some of the questions seemed very simple.  With each question, more people turned around in their seats.  At this point I did not know Walter well, and I felt increasingly bad for him.

At the end of the seminar, Walter stood up and spoke.  He summarized the topic in a few sentences.  He continued with, “I would have thought…”  and then proceeded to list a number of important research questions.  I noticed graduate students scrambling to jot down the dissertation topics that Walter was articulating.  Walter’s unusual creativity and clarity of mind were clear to all.

What I learned that day was to try to be fearless, like Walter, when working to understand something.  Thank you Walter.

What Would Walter Ask?

Walter has a very characteristic way of approaching a problem.  I am not really able to say what it is.  However, after working with Walter for some time, I found it very helpful in my own work to ask, “What would Walter ask?”  To this day when I do that, I hear Walter’s voice, and useful questions enter my mind.  Thank you Walter.

Mark Baker, PhD ’85
Principal Professional Staff
Group Supervisor
Oceanic, Atmospheric and Remote Sensing Sciences Group. The Johns Hopkins University
Applied Physics Laboratory

I graduated with my PhD in oceanography in 1985 from SIO/UCSD. My advisor was Dr. Carl Gibson. I did a short post-doc and then obtained a job here at JHU/APL in 1985. I run a cross-disciplinary group of 45.

Walter was on my thesis committee and not only brilliant but always the consummate gentleman. He is a great role model for one to aspire to emulate. At the end of my oral presentation of my proposed thesis work to the committee he sent me out of the room to discuss the breath of the proposed work. He came out, put his arm around my shoulders and said we want you to focus on the sampling question for the statistics of microstructure in the ocean and that there was life after graduate school.

That narrowing of focus and guidance was tremendously helpful. He also obtained an Earle C. Anthony Dissertation Fellowship (1983-1984) to finish my thesis work as my advisor was short on funding at that time.

I often surfed at Black’s Beach while at SIO and ran into Walter one morning on my way to the waves as he was coming up the path. He was decked out in his hiking knickers and said “off for a bit of surf?”

His approach to oral exams for students in his seminars should be a model for all professors. It was not only a test of my knowledge but a learning experience as well that transpired as a cordial discussion of the physics in question.

Arthur Maxwell, MS ’52; PhD ’59 (Oceanography)
Professor Emeritus, Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was the first Director of the Institute for Geophysics. (Prior positions included Head Oceanographer for the Office of Naval Research and Provost at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.)

Walter Munk is the oceanographer’s “oceanographer” to any existing or aspiring marine scientist.  I have had the privilege of being his friend and colleague for nearly seven decades.  My first encounter with Walter was in 1949.  As a recent graduate in physics from New Mexico A & M, I had traveled to Stanford University to accept a fellowship in physics. On the way back to New Mexico, I saw a two page article in Life magazine about the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Seeing it was nearby on my return, I decided to to investigate.  The first person I met at Scripps was Walter, who spent time explaining to me oceanography and Scripps. I was so impressed, that when I returned to New Mexico, I called Stanford and turned down their offer of a fellowship and week later I arrived at Scripps to meet Walter again and enroll as a graduate student.

Edward Crisp Bullard (right) presented with the Albatross Award by its previous recipient, Roger Revelle (left), in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1976.

Many years later at a dinner at Gordon Lill’s house in Washington D.C., Gordon, John Knauss, and I decided that oceanography needed an award akin to the Nobel Prizes, expressively for oceanographers.  So was born the American Miscellaneous Society’s “Albatross Award.” The award not only should reflect on scientific accomplishments, but also include an element of humor.    The three of us, realizing that we would unlikely be recipients, decided to award the first to ourselves for conceiving the idea.  Next, it was enthusiastically and unanimously decided that Walter Munk should be the second Awardee for his ideas on the effect of the earth’s rotation if all the cars in the U.S. were driven to Alaska.

Since then, the Albatross Award has been conferred many times on an illustrious group of individuals.  The most recent being only a couple of years ago in New Orleans, where Walter emceed the event.

Not only has Walter been oceanography’s greatest spokeperson, he is also a gracious human who gives of himself to others.  I have personally benefitted from my interactions with him as a student and later a colleague. We are all fortunate that he continues to contribute up to his 100th.

Congratulations, Walter!

Harold Burstyn, M.S. ’57 (Oceanography)
Attorney-at-Law (NY & FL) and Registered Patent Attorney
Adjunct Professor, College of Engineering & Computer Science, Syracuse University

I never took a course from Walter in my brief time at SIO (1955-57), but he was and remains a major presence in my off-and-on career as a historian of physical oceanography. He tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade Carl Eckart that I had the talent to help that outstanding theoretician with his then-current research. In both La Jolla and Woods Hole his warm support of my research was an inspiration to continue. One of my fondest memories is watching Walter pushing his late wife in her wheelchair past my house in Woods Hole on their way to a larger house down the street. He has continued his distinguished career, and I have left the history of oceanography for other professional pursuits. Yet his support and friendship remain a hallmark of my nearly 90 years. Though my Scripps degree came from UCLA, I have persuaded the powers that be that I am in fact an alumnus of UCSD, whose progress I follow in the publications and email messages I regularly receive.

Jim Cairns, PhD ’74 (Oceanography)
The Cairns Foundation
Abyssal Systems
Scripps Director’s Council Member

Surprisingly, in his career Walter Munk has had probably fewer than ten graduate students. I’m fortunate enough to be one of them. I use the present tense because even though I graduated from SIO in 1974, I continue to be his student and he my mentor. From the moment I entered Walter’s group at IGPP it was clear that it was going to be a unique experience. He made little distinction between grad students and world famous scientists. We were all treated as equals on the team. If any of us had something worthwhile to contribute he would give us his complete attention. If it turned out not to be well thought out, he would begin softly humming a tune, and we knew the session was over.

The late Freeman Gilbert was director of IGPP in 1969 when I started there. Because I had already been working in as a physical oceanographer at the Navy laboratory on Point Loma for some years, he designated Walter as my faculty advisor. I remember going down the long mezzanine walkway to Walter’s office, knocking on his partially open door, and announcing that Freeman had chosen him as my advisor. He was visibly irritated, and replied in a loud voice “Nobody assigns students to me!” After the initial shock, he accepted me anyway. Neither of us knew at that moment that it was the beginning of a close friendship that has endured for nearly 50 years.

Jean-Loic CARRE, M.S. ’78 (Oceanography)
General Manager
French national Water cluster:
(former AOS student at Shore Processes Lab: Doug Inman and Clint Winant)

Please transmit my respectful wishes to Dr. Munk : I have had the honor to be one of his students at the famous “Chip-Munk” class (Chip Cox + Walter Munk) exactly 40 years ago (1977).

More recently, I had the opportunity to visit the D Day beaches in Normandy, and I remembered that Dr. Munk made a definite contribution to sea-state prediction at that time.

Total respect, Dr. Munk, thank you so much for all this!

Raffaele Ferrari, PhD ’00 (Oceanography)
Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Oceanography, MIT / Director of the MIT Program of Atmospheres, Oceans and Climate

I was graduate student at Scripps in the last lustrum of last century. I had the privilege to take a class with Walter Munk and to discuss my science with him a few times. I remember a memorable quote: “In oceanography you should never repeat an experiment twice, because you may get a different answer.”

At the time I thought it was just a joke, but then I realized that one of the trademarks of Walter’s genius has been to extract deep insights from a single experiment — his studies of surface gravity waves and ocean mixing being great examples. Instead of repeating experiments and getting lost in details, Walter focused on truly understanding his observations and identifying the key physics. I concluded that the quote was appropriate for somebody with Walter’s talents, but probably not for mere mortals. 

Diane Henderson, PhD ’90
Dept of Mathematics, Penn State University

My 5th grade Science teacher showed our class the film “Waves Across the Pacific.” I decided right then and there I wanted to go to Scripps, study oceanography, and meet Walter Munk.  I did that and years later ended up talking with Walter about a different aspect of that project. So, at age about 45, I finally understood what Walter and friends had introduced me to and what had so intrigued me at age 10.

Steacy Hicks, M.S. ’52 (Oceanography)
Retired Physical Oceanographer
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

I was a student at Scripps from June 1950 to August 1952.  Walter was my Adviser and I had a Graduate Assistantship with him the entire time.  He also taught the advanced course in physical oceanography.  As such, I learned a great deal of physical oceanography from him.  In the advanced course, each student had to give a fifty-minute presentation of an assigned classic paper.  On the conclusion of one of them Walter said, “That was impressive, now do it again so that a high school student can understand it.”

I’ve never forgotten that and have always applied the principle to my lectures and papers.  I left with an M.S. Degree, a job arranged by Walter, a love of all my professors, and of Scripps.

Happy Birthday, Walter!

Ken Kvammen, M.S. ’50 (Oceanography)

Walter was always a great friend. 


Joe Presley Jr, PhD ’86 (Electrical Engineering/Applied Ocean Science)

Dr. Munk was the one member of my thesis committee who most demonstrated that individuals could impact the world at large. He welcomed me into his home more than once and inspired me to dig deeper into things that interested me at the time and later in my career. 


Mark Wimbush, PhD ’69
Emeritus Professor of Oceanography
The University of Rhode Island – Graduate School of Oceanography

I had the privilege of carrying out my doctoral studies at Scripps under Walter Munk in the late 1960s.  Your e-mail got me thinking about him and how great his influence has been, not only on me but the whole field of oceanography.  This was too difficult to put into a short message, so instead I’ve written a brief “Ode to Dr. Munk”:

On the dark face of the ocean
(I do not palter)
Four million millennia of night
Have ceased with eight decades of light
Shone by Walter
(And Newton’s Laws of Motion)

Sarah Zedler, PhD ’07 (Oceanography)
Research Associate
The University of Texas at Austin

One of the nice things about Walter Munk is his habit of popping up unannounced at various student events to provide commentary and encouragement, which gives him an ethereal quality. One time I was presenting a seminar on sea level rise and was pleasantly surprised to find him among the audience.  On returning to my seat, he lightly tapped me on the shoulder and complimented me on the talk. 

On another memorable occasion, I was sitting near Walter Munk in the audience of the thesis defense of one of my peers, Jessica Kleiss, who was presenting her work on ocean wave physics.  At the end of the presentation, which impressively straddled two scientific disciplines — wave physics and image processing — she received a standing ovation.  I was pleased to observe, that Walter Munk was one of the first people to stand up.