Walter Munk – Remembering The Einstein Of The Ocean.
Voice of Biotecnika – Episode No 44
“People should treat the oceans like we do anything else that we care about – with consideration, with care, and affection. That’s it. For that, we must educate.”
These are the words of a high-spirited scientist-explorer whose insights on the nature of winds, waves, and currents earned him global fame and recognition.
A warm welcome to another exciting episode of Biotecnika’s very own podcast- the Voice of Biotecnika. Today we will take you to explore through the journey of a science explorer who loved the seas and lived with the seas – a short insight into the life and achievements of the world-renowned oceanographer – Walter Munk.
Known as the Einstein of the Oceans, Walter Munk lived a century questioning and solving the mysteries of the deep blue seas. Where do waves come from? Is our planet getting warmer? Can a sinking treasure house be saved? Seemingly unconnected but these were a few questions that challenged the restless mind of this remarkable man.
Being a professor emeritus of geophysics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, Walter Munk’s pioneering contributions to physical oceanography and geophysics advanced the science and understanding of ocean waves, wind-driven ocean gyres, deep-sea tides, internal waves, the rotation of the earth, ocean acoustics, and geophysical data analysis was recognized worldwide.
He helped ensure the safety and success of Allied beach landings during the Second World War by devising ways to forecast the waves. Decades later he came to fire what became known as the “sound heard around the world” – an underwater emission that reached across oceans – in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of climate change.
The scientist, who has died aged 101, was long associated with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego. Walter Munk was one of the most celebrated oceanographers of his era – a scientist who devoted nearly 80 years to unraveling such questions as to where waves begin, why they may break violently or wash ashore gently, how sound travels thousands of miles through the water, and what information that journey might reveal about the global ecosystem.
His genius lay in divining the interlocked patterns beneath the seeming clutter and chaos of the world’s oceans. According to Joshua Horwitz, who profiled Walter Munk in his 2015 book War of the Whales. “He was revered in equal measure by surfers and navy admirals for his oracular ability to predict when far-off waves would break on beaches.”
Much like the surfers of popular imagination, Munk found a home on the beaches of California, where he had fled to avoid a life on Wall Street. Born in Vienna to an affluent banking family, he had come to the United States in the early 1930s to attend a boarding school in New York and to carry on the family profession. But he soon discovered he despised banking, bought a convertible and set out for the west coast.
He abandoned finance for science, eventually landing at Scripps, where he apprenticed himself to the director, Harald Sverdrup, a leading oceanographer of his day.
In 1938 Nazi Germany annexed Austria and accelerated a campaign of antisemitic persecution. Dr. Munk, whose family had Jewish roots, became a US citizen and served briefly in the army before beginning what would be his seminal research for the navy.
Walter Munk credited Sverdrup with playing a leading role in the development of wave forecasting, which military strategists used in the planning of the amphibious landing on north Africa in 1942, the Normandy invasion in 1944, and throughout the Pacific.
New Scientist magazine credits Walter Munk with saving “countless lives by helping the Allied military determine when troops could make amphibious landings without being swamped by big surf hundreds of meters from a hostile shore”.
Later in his career, he attracted wide attention, as well as some controversy, by using ocean acoustics to measure ocean temperatures, and thus to better understand climate change.
In 1991 Walter Munk led an experiment near Heard Island, in the southern Indian Ocean. Understanding that sound travels more quickly in warm water than it does in cold water, Munk sent low-frequency sounds through the ocean. Even the test signal was detected as far away as Bermuda.
Years later in an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, he said, “I still can’t believe that happened. We hadn’t even started the main experiment.” This was one of his greatest achievements, was able to prove at such large scales for the first time that different oceans were warming at different speeds. Such acoustic tests encountered some opposition from marine biologists who feared they might interfere with migratory patterns of whales and other animals.
For the wide-ranging nature and applications of his work, Walter Munk was dubbed the “Einstein of the oceans” – a comparison Munk rejected by saying- Einstein was a great man. He was never on that level.
He attended the California Institute of Technology where he received a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1939 and a master’s degree in geophysics in 1940 and the University of California at Los Angeles where he received a doctorate in oceanography in 1947.
In 1947 Walter Munk became an assistant professor at Scripps. In 1954 he became a professor of geophysics and also was named a member of the UC’s Institute of Geophysics, based in Los Angeles and, in 1960, he established a branch of the institute on the Scripps campus in La Jolla. The new unit was established to study the earth, its atmosphere, oceans, and interior, using methods of experimental and mathematical physics. Until 1982, he served as director of the Scripps branch and as an associate director of the university-wide institute, which was renamed the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP).
In 1963 Walter Munk led a study of the propagation across the Pacific Ocean of swells generated near Antarctica. The program measured fluctuations with pressure sensing devices lowered to the ocean floor at six Pacific Ocean locations. Measurements were also made from Scripps’ Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP). He operated the recording station on American Samoa during the three-month project.
In 1969 he began measuring tides in the deep sea, using highly sophisticated pressure-sensing instruments that were dropped to the ocean floor and retrieved by acoustic release. Munk and Frank E. Snodgrass, a Scripps engineer with whom he worked for more than two decades, received the first award for ocean science and engineering given by the Marine Technology Society.
Munk also played a lead role in developing a new method for measuring long-term changes in ocean temperature associated with global warming that was first tested in the Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC) project. The idea behind ATOC is to track the changes over time of the travel times of sound signals sent from underwater speakers to underwater receivers. Because sound travels faster in warmer water than cooler water, a long-term series of tests that recorded increasingly faster travel times would indicate the ocean is warming.
After the war, Munk provided scientific support for the nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll. “It’s stunning; it’s horrible,” he said years later. “It’s not dark, it’s quite white. You see the boiling and the water vapor above you, like a curtain coming down all around you.
His achievements were numerous- starting from The Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America in 1965 till 2018, he received a total of 14 medals back to back from different organizations. To name some-
- In 1965 he received the Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America and in 1966 received the Sverdrup Gold Medal of the American Meteorological Society. He received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society of London in 1968.
- In 1976, he received the first Maurice Ewing Medal from the American Geophysical Union and the U.S. Navy. In 1977 he received the Alexander Agassiz Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1978 he was honored with the Captain Robert Dexter Conrad Award from the U.S. Navy.
- In 1983 Munk was honored with the President’s National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest award for lifetime achievement in scientific research, “for his unique contributions to the sciences of the geophysics and physical oceanography which have led to a better understanding of the earth’s rotation, the complexities of ocean waves, tidal processes and acoustic propagation.”
- In 1989 Munk was honored with the William Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union.
- In 1993 he received the Vetlesen Prize from Columbia University and the first Walter Munk Award for Distinguished Research in Oceanography Related to Sound and the Sea granted by the United States Navy and The Oceanography Society.
- In 1999 Munk was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences for his fundamental contributions to the field of oceanography, the first time the prize was awarded to an oceanographer.
- In 2001, he was the inaugural recipient of Prince Albert I Medal in the physical sciences of the oceans, which Prince Rainier of Monaco created in cooperation with the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans.
- Munk was honored with the 2010 Crafoord Prize in Geosciences from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for his pioneering and fundamental contributions to our understanding of ocean circulation, tides and waves, and their role in the Earth’s dynamics.
- When Walter Munk accepted the 2010 Crafoord Prize in geosciences from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – an award often compared to the Nobel, and which recognized a career that touched on waves and polar ice caps and warming seas – he opened a lecture about climate change by citing from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!
More recently, in 2018, Munk received the French Legion of Honor with the rank of Chevalier (Knight) in Paris for his exceptional contributions to oceanography. The Legion of Honor is the highest French decoration recognizing military and civilian merit.
And what more?
Munk has two marine species named in his honor: Mobula munkiana or Munk’s devil ray—a “flying” pygmy devil ray known for its ability to leap out of the water at great heights—and Sirsoe munki, a deep-sea worm. The 2017 documentary Spirit of Discovery follows Munk as he goes on an expedition to Cabo Pulmo in Baja California, Mexico, in search of the mysterious devil rays named after him.
Munk’s habit of everyday scholarship never stopped. He remained active in his advisory work with JASON in recent years and he was working on research papers when Scripps was joined by national political and science leaders in celebrating his 100th birthday in 2017. In the past decade, he had continued outreach, conferring with Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama on the threat of climate change.
At a civic event on October 2017 that was part of a series of celebrations for his 100th birthday, an array of elected officials came to La Jolla to fete Munk when the boardwalk on La Jolla Shores was renamed in his honor and would become Walter Munk Way. With his thanks, Munk left the crowd with an observation to ponder. later he was heard saying-
“The CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere now is producing a rate of sea-level rise so that the Walter Munk Way is not going to enjoy another 100 years.
Munk was a member or fellow of more than a dozen professional societies. He has served on many university, national, and international committees. Since 1968 he has been a member of JASON, a prestigious panel of military advisors. He has written more than 200 scientific papers.
Walter Munk has been a world treasure for ocean science and geophysics. He has been a guiding force, a stimulating force, a provocative force in science for 80 years. While one of the most distinguished and honored scientists in the world, Walter never rested on his accomplishments. He was always interested in sparking a discussion about what’s coming next.”
However, this raspy-voiced barnacle of a man, always in and around water, trying to figure out how waves broke, where currents moved, and why changes in the ocean’s makeup affected Earth’s climate, took his final retirement on 8 Feb 2019, at the age of 101.
In honor of this great personality, at the event, City of San Diego officials issued a Proclamation that Oct. 19, 2017, would officially be known as “Walter Munk Day.”
This was the story of the Einstein of the Oceans. His work clearly gave us a message- ask questions, fear not of failure. There is a vast ocean of knowledge yet to be discovered. So are you ready to explore??