“Work on problems you most enjoy” — Munk’s legacy

Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA.

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An exchange I once had with oceanographer Walter Munk offers insight into how he inspired countless scientists and engineers.

The inspiration first came to me from his classic paper ‘Abyssal recipes’ (W. H. Munk Deep-Sea Res. 13, 707–730; 1966), in which he laid out the seemingly unlikely notion that swimming animals contribute to ocean mixing. In 2007, after pursuing that line of research for more than a year without success, I e-mailed Walter for advice.

He replied: “It was partly an attempt at humor when I suggested many years ago that diurnal migration could lead to appreciable mixing. And I was amazed at recent papers authored by those who think this is not a joke.” He added: “People thought it was a lunatic idea when Carl Wunsch and I suggested that the Moon (via lunar tides) could have anything to do with mixing. And now that is generally accepted.”

His advice? “Work on problems you most enjoy. Strange things can happen.” More than a decade later, we are gleaning hints of truth from his original jest (see I. A. Houghton et al. Nature 556, 497–500; 2018).

Nature 567, 175 (2019)

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