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Famed San Diego Researcher Walter Munk Welcomes 100th Birthday

Scripps Institution Oceanography researcher Walter Munk, who turns 100 on Thursday, remembers his long career with a discussion at his La Jolla home.

Renowned researcher Walter Munk turned a lifetime worth of questions into a spectacular career at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Munk turns 100 Thursday, and he sat down the KPBS Reporter Erik Anderson last week to reflect on his birthday and the long journey that brought him the world.

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Q: Many consider you a giant among your peers. Is that how you see yourself?

A: I have lots of shortcomings. One is, I'm not very good with equipment and the reason I've been successful is I've worked with very good people as partners. Frank Snodgrass, Peter Busker, others. I'm good with one thing. I'm good at asking questions at the right time. Like this is really a problem that ought to be worked on now. Okay, that doesn't make me a giant.

Q: What do you think Scripps would be like, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, if you had not been here?

A: There've been some wonderful people that I've worked with. I loved working with Harald Sverdrup. He was so good to me. I worked all my life with Roger Revelle, whom I admired tremendously, and he also was my close personal friend. And I just think I've been ever so lucky. Now, Scripps has changed. It was 15 people when I came, including the director and the gardener. It's now more than 1,500, isn't it? That's very different.

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Q: Let's go back a few decades. You're in the Pacific Ocean, interested in research on tsunamis if I understand it correctly,

A: Yes

Q: And you witnessed an open-air nuclear explosion, something that few people had ever seen.

A: You mean Eniwetok, in 1951? I still remember vividly having the mushroom cloud form over me ... very much alone in the Pacific in a four-by-four-foot raft, and I will never forget that.

Photo credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives, UC San Diego Libraries

Walter Munk (left) with Harald Sverdrup in the George H. Scripps Memorial Marine Biological Laboratory building at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, circa 1940.

Q: You've spent a lot of your professional career supporting or advancing the various missions here at Scripps

A: Yes

Q: And along the way, you've set a lot of people on paths to advance research that you've begun.

A: I've had a significant number of letters from people, just now, just this month, saying that something I suggested that they do in their work was a major factor in their career, and that's my birthday present.

Q: You spend your mornings still working.

A: And the afternoons — if I don't have to answer questions like now. (Munk laughs)

Q: What are you working on?

A: Now I hope that I can explain that. If there were no waves on the water you'd have a single image of the sun. Suppose you have waves. You get a glitter point here which reflected the sun into your camera. And you can calculate what the slopes were because you know where it is. And so by photographing you can get the probability of slopes on the sea surface from those pictures. We worked there for two months out of Maui and published a paper on the probability distribution of wave slopes. And it had two things we discovered that was totally a puzzle to us. One is, you would expect waves only in the direction opposite to the wind, and very little coming from the side. Well, the ones coming crosswind were almost as big and as steep as the ones up and downwind. And we still don't understand that.

Q: You've been trying to work that out.

A: And I've been trying to work that out intermittently since that time, which was over 50 years ago. And I said before I kick the bucket I'd like to solve that problem. I've been working like mad, and I think I have a solution. But I'm not there yet, but that's what I'm working on.

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