‘Ein­stein of the Oceans’ Wal­ter Munk dies at 101

Sci­en­tist im­proved surf fore­cast­ing


SAN DIEGO — Wal­ter Munk, the high-spir­ited sci­en­tist-ex­plorer whose in­sights on the na­ture of winds, waves and cur­rents earned him the nick­name the “Ein­stein of the Oceans,” died Fri­day. He was 101.

Munk died of pneu­mo­nia at Se­iche, his sea­side home near the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego, a cam­pus he helped make fa­mous through decades of work at the Scripps In­sti­tu­tion of Oceanog­ra­phy.

His death was an­nounced by his wife, Mary Munk. “We thought he would live for­ever, she said. His le­gacy will be his pas­sion for the ocean, which was end­less.”

Munk was al­ways in or around wa­ter, try­ing to fig­ure out how waves broke, where cur­rents moved and why changes in the ocean’s makeup af­fected Earth’s cli­mate.

He greatly im­proved surf fore­cast­ing, help­ing Amer­i­can troops land more safely dur­ing the D-Day in­va­sion in World War II. He mon­i­tored a hy­dro­gen bomb blast from a tiny raft in the early 1950s and was show­ered with ra­dioac­tive fall­out.

And he was among the first wave of sci­en­tists to pull on scuba gear and ex­plore won­drous and wicked oceans.

Munk also was end­lessly cu­ri­ous about ma­rine life, es­pe­cially fish — and he even­tu­ally had a weird one named after him. It was a species of devil ray that has an ex­traor­di­nar­ily abil­ity to leap out of the wa­ter — giv­ing the im­pres­sion that it can fly.

He went in search of the devil ray a few years ago dur­ing a trip that was filmed for a doc­u­men­tary. The film shows Munk in a fa­mil­iar set­ting, stand­ing at the rail of the boat, the wind ruffling his whitish-gray locks as he stared into the sea in joy and amaze­ment.

“Wal­ter was the most bril­liant sci­en­tist I have ever known,” said Pradeep Khosla, UC San Diego’s chan­cel­lor. “I stand in awe at the im­pact (he) had on UC San Diego, from his count­less dis­cov­er­ies that put the univer­sity on the map as a great re­search in­sti­tu­tion, to his global lead­er­ship on the great sci­en­tific is­sues of our time.”

Mar­garet Leinen, di­rec­tor of Scripps Oceanog­ra­phy, said: “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.”

Munk was born on Oct. 19, 1917, and grew up in Aus­tria, where he shrugged off stud­ies dur­ing his high school years to in­dulge his great pas­sion — ski­ing.

His par­ents later sent him to Columbia Univer­sity, hop­ing that he’d straighten out. He did, but in his own way. He im­mersed him­self in study­ing when he wasn’t run­ning the univer­sity’s ski club.

Munk’s at­ten­tion drifted to the West Coast. He fell in love with Pasadena and came to a turn­ing point.

“My mother gave me a tidy amount of money and said, ‘Do what you want,’” Munk said in a 2016 in­ter­view.

“I bought a DeSoto con­vert­ible, drove to Pasadena and showed up at Caltech. The dean said, ‘Let me pull your file.’ I said there was no file. I was so naive I thought you could go to col­lege wher­ever you wanted.

“I was told that I could take an en­trance exam in a month. I took a room at the cor­ner of Lake and Cal­i­for­nia and, for the first time in my life, re­ally be­gan study­ing. By some mir­a­cle, I passed the exam and be­came a stu­dent at Caltech.”

He later be­came smit­ten with a girl and fol­lowed her to La Jolla, where he de­vel­oped the deep­est pas­sion of his life, the sea.

Shortly be­fore World War II, he be­came a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Scripps In­sti­tu­tion of Oceanog­ra­phy, where he be­gan study­ing surf fore­cast­ing. He was soon work­ing for the Navy at a re­search lab on Point Loma, study­ing anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare and wave pre­dic­tion.

He re­fined those pre­dic­tions, work that Al­lied forces widely used in World War II to put troops ashore. Munk’s re­search later helped other sci­en­tists do such things as find­ing bet­ter ways to guide ships in the open sea and telling week­end surfers ex­actly where the waves would break.

His in­ter­ests mul­ti­plied in the 1950s and’60s. He helped de­sign sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tions to the deep, open ocean, re­search that helped ex­plain the role of ocean cur­rents and pro­vide a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of why the Earth wob­bles.

The na­tion’s at­ten­tion turned to the space pro­gram in the 1960s, as the U.S. worked to be­come the first na­tion to put men on the moon.

Munk pre­ferred to look down­ward, into the sea. He was de­ter­mined to rally sci­en­tists around the idea of drilling into the Earth’s man­tle so that they could bet­ter un­der­stand its com­po­si­tion, evo­lu­tion and role.

On the whole, that ef­fort, cen­tered on Project MOHOLE, failed. But a test drilling was per­formed in the early 1960s and sci­en­tists learned that they could use acous­tic sig­nals from the seafloor to po­si­tion sur­face plat­forms, a ma­jor ad­vance in ocean drilling.

That and other work earned him the Na­tional Medal of Science.

Munk re­mained ac­tive un­til quite re­cently. He and his wife spent most of last sum­mer tour­ing Europe, a trip that in­cluded a visit to Paris, where he was awarded the French Le­gion of Honor with the rank of che­va­lier (knight) for his con­tri­bu­tions to oceanog­ra­phy.

Munk said he planned to travel to France this sum­mer for the 75th an­niver­sary of the D-Day land­ings, though his health put that in ques­tion. He had been be­com­ing weaker and had prob­lems breath­ing.

UC San Diego said in a state­ment that Munk was pre­ceded in death by his first wife, Ju­dith, who died in 2006, and a daugh­ter, Lu­cian, who was born with a heart de­fect and died at age 7 in 1961.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Mary Coak­ley Munk; daugh­ters Edie Munk of La Jolla and Ken­dall Munk of State Col­lege, Pa.; and three grand­sons, Wal­ter, Lu­cien and Maxwell.

Wal­ter Munk

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