“I was a terrible student until I was halfway through college,” U.S. oceanographer Walter Munk admits. “I didn’t have any connection to science.”
Now an authority in his field, Munk was awarded the Kyoto Prize last week for the leading role he has played in Earth science, especially in oceanographic studies, through his half-century career.
The 82-year-old Munk told The Japan Times in a recent interview that he knew nothing about the ocean until he happened to take a summer job at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California while a junior at California Institute of Technology.
“I wanted to be in some field where you are not indoors all the time,” said the Austria-born Munk. He is now a professor at Scripps and says the way in which people become specialists in a certain field is always accidental.
He said he still spends much of his time on fieldwork rather than research. This is partly because he has been a pioneer of new fields on which little has yet been written, according to the oceanographer.
Indeed, Munk’s activities are quite diverse.
His study on the mechanism of the relationship between winds and waves became the basis for the first wave predictions, which has developed into the tide forecasts we see on TV today.
He also established the framework for the contemporary theory of wind-driven ocean circulation. The boundary layers along the western edges of the ocean, whose characteristics he clarified, are now called Munk layers.
He recently embarked on a project to monitor temperature increases of seawater.
Although “nearly all or most” climate changes, including El Nino and La Nina, are natural, he said small efforts made by everyone mean a lot for the environment, noting it has been adequately shown that humankind can affect climate.
Munk recalled the days when few paid heed to warnings that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would change the climate: “They said, ‘How can we little people driving our cars to work make any difference?’ But see what happened.”
As a leading oceanographer, he has also worked with the U.S. government throughout his career.
Although he joked about government work being “lots of talk, lots of papers, but no action,” Munk said, “I am very pleased as an immigrant that I have been permitted to help the government with policy.”
He said the Kyoto Prize is the most prestigious award he has ever received. The prize has been given out every year since 1985 by the Inamori Foundation to people who have made significant contributions to scientific progress and human betterment.
Munk said he is not going to retire, and added he will use the 50 million yen prize money for establishing a fund for students at Scripps.
He said he likes working with young students because “they can be very rude and tell you that you are crazy. It is very healthy.”
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