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UC San Diego Icon Walter Munk to Receive Roger Revelle Medal

Medal revived by Chancellor Khosla to honor impact of UC San Diego faculty

World-renowned oceanographer Walter Munk is already an icon at the University of California, San Diego. Now, he is the recipient of an award named for another iconic campus leader—the “father” of UC San Diego, Roger Revelle. As part of UC San Diego’s Founders’ Celebration Dinner on Nov. 16, Munk will receive the prestigious Roger Revelle Medal in honor of his achievements and impact in advancing the UC San Diego mission.

The Revelle Medal—revived by Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla—recognizes current and former UC San Diego faculty members for sustained, distinguished and extraordinary service to the campus. The award, which has not been given out in a decade, was created in honor of Revelle, who helped establish UC San Diego during his tenure as director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography from 1950 to 1964. Revelle placed great emphasis on recruiting top academics to the fledgling campus, which positioned UC San Diego to become one of the top 10 public universities in the nation.

Sharing Revelle’s passion for faculty excellence, Khosla has updated the Revelle Medal to specifically honor distinctive and visionary faculty leaders. Munk is the first to receive the reinvented Revelle Medal.

The Revelle Medal. Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

“It was Roger Revelle’s vision to create a distinctive university by recruiting exceptional faculty from around the world, and that is what led to UC San Diego’s rise to preeminence,” said Chancellor Khosla. “I cannot think of anyone more fitting to receive the Roger Revelle Medal than Walter Munk. Through his long and illustrious career, Walter has made remarkable discoveries that have helped position UC San Diego as an international leader in ocean science.”

Commonly referred to as the “greatest living oceanographer,” Munk is widely recognized for his groundbreaking investigations of wave propagation, tides, currents, circulation and other aspects of the ocean and Earth. The 95-year-old scientist is still active at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. His accomplishments have been recognized by a lengthy list of organizations from around the world. He won the National Medal of Science and the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences. He was the inaugural recipient of the 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. Most recently, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Munk’s receipt of the Crafoord Prize.

Yet for Munk, the Roger Revelle Medal is especially meaningful. “Roger was my best friend and the person who had the greatest influence on my career,” said Munk, who received his Ph.D. in oceanography in 1947 from Scripps, where he went on to spend his entire academic career.

According to Munk, “I got to know Roger best when we spent a year on the Capricorn Expedition.” As part of the expedition, led by Revelle, the Scripps Oceanography team made tsunami wave observations at Eniwetak atoll. The scientists then spent a year returning to California by ship, stopping for research along the way—“in Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, the Marquesas and all the other beautiful islands,” recalled Munk. The team measured heat from the Earth’s core and the thickness of the sedimentary layer on the sea floor, studying plate tectonics during its earliest phases.

Walter Munk

Munk became a professor of geophysics in 1954 and was named a member of the University of California's Institute of Geophysics. In 1960, he established a branch of the institute at Scripps in La Jolla. Until 1982, he served as director of the Scripps division and as an associate director of the university-wide institute, which was renamed the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP). Munk’s association with IGPP continues to this day.

Recalling his mentor’s contributions to UC San Diego, Munk recounted Revelle’s gift for recruiting top academics to the new campus in the 1960s. “Roger was a tremendous recruiter,” said Munk. “He became so interested in the work of these people and what they were doing that he could explain to them how they could do their work better at UC San Diego. He was a genuine participant in their dreams.”

Munk reminisced about his role in the recruiting effort. “Magically, Roger would turn up at our house with the recruits around martini time,” said Munk. “He would show them the ocean view and we would have the martinis ready.”

Esteemed recipients of the Roger Revelle Medal from past years include: Robert C. Dynes (2003); Irwin and Joan Jacobs (1998); Herbert Kunzel (1998); Jerome Katzin (1996); Ellen Revelle (1996); Richard C. Atkinson (1995); Audrey Geisel (1995); James U. Lemke (1993); James S. DeSilva, Jr. (1993); Mandell Weiss (1991); Cecil H. Green (1988); Kenneth Hill (1986); Clark Kerr (1985); and DeWitt A. Higgs (1981). While the reinvented Revelle Medal honors outstanding faculty members, the Chancellor’s Medal is bestowed upon visionary community leaders whose long-standing contributions have impacted UC San Diego.