La Jolla Shores names street for local science hero Walter Munk

Someone close to Walter Munk told La Jolla Light that he secretly dislikes being referred to as the “Einstein of the Oceans.” For all his accomplishments as an oceanographer, he’s a modest man who doesn’t see himself as the genius other scientists credit him as being. The scene at Kellogg Park, Oct. 19, as La Jolla Shores renamed its boardwalk “Walter Munk Way” on the eve of his 100th birthday, suggested a different analogy anyway. Drawing a swarm of emotional fans, Munk was more rock star than scientist.

“I’m a little overcome,” he told the Light as well-wishers crowded around his wheelchair seeking selfies and regaling him with stories about how he touched their lives.

Munk, a native of Austria, joined Scripps Institution of Oceanography as a doctoral student in 1939, the beginning of a career that transformed science’s insight into the oceans. He invented the science of wave prediction, without which America’s World War II landing on Normandy Beach — June 6, 1944 — might not have succeeded. He invented the tsunami prediction system still in use today. And he remains, despite his advanced age, a prolific climate-change researcher.

Prior to the unveiling of three street signs, officials from the City, County and State gave speeches and presented proclamations.

“This is the most appropriate thing,” said County Supervisor Ron Roberts. “We have a street named after Neptune, and Walter’s done a lot more than Neptune’s done for our understanding of the oceans.”

La Jolla City Council member Barbara Bry, who organized the dedication, praised Munk’s “relentless curiosity, and the creativity and playfulness that he brings to his research.”

But it was Munk who made the lasting impression, bringing the fanfare down to Earth and into sharp relief. In 100 years from now, he noted solemnly, Walter Munk Way will probably be underwater.

“We are worried it’s going to take a miracle to prevent it from being flooded when it reaches the same age,” Munk said.

After Munk and his wife, Mary, tugged on a string to unveil the covered street sign, most of the 300 audience members walked the mile uphill to Scripps. Here, amid Walter Munk standees and banners, they sang “Happy Birthday” to their hero, ate cake, and listened to Munk thank his co-workers throughout the years, most of whom died long ago.

“My work is far from finished,” Munk promised.


Walter Munk - Part 1: La Jolla celebrates centennial of “The Einstein of the Oceans”:

• Walter Munk - Part 2: At Home; His house is his hand-built castle: