Oral History Transcript — Dr. Walter Munk
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Interview with Dr. Walter Munk
Aaserud:I presented my project to you the last time, so we needn't go into that. I probably asked you about what papers you might have, both pertaining to yourself, and your career generally. Are they deposited or in the process of being deposited at the Scripps Archives?
Munk:Yes. Well, I have this biography which would have never existed except for my friends and colleagues — and I do have all my papers and reprints. I have two volumes of it.
Aaserud:What about letters and manuscripts?
Munk:I've been very sloppy about it, until we got an archivist, Deborah Day; she's quite wonderful.
Aaserud:Yes, everybody seems to agree on that.
Munk:And I wish I'd thought about it sooner. I used to throw things away every few years when things got piled high. Now I think it was a mistake.
Aaserud:I, of course, think so, but the papers here seem to be taken good care of now.
Munk:Now I think it's in much, much better shape.
Aaserud:What about papers regarding JASON? I've heard about this terrible thing with the papers of JASON where they have disappeared essentially.
Munk:That's a terrible shame. Are you planning to write a history of JASON or a history of physics? I had hoped that you might consider as a separate or related project some day to say something about the JASON group.
Aaserud:That's actually what I'm hoping to do. I'm hoping to write specifically about JASON. The more general study will result in interviews that will be deposited at the Center, because it's really too broad a topic to write a monograph on, at least in a manageable time period. I have an appointment for three years, after all, so it's limited. Even JASON is too much for that, I think. But I'm limiting myself to the first 10 or 15 years, in the first place, anyway. But just for the interviews, it's very, very valuable to have some independent written material to pull out of the hat once in a while. I would like to start out with a little bit about your own background, just to get it in context. And I hope you don't mind that.
Munk:Not at all.
Aaserud:So, to begin with the beginning, you were born in Vienna the 19th of October 1917.
Aaserud:Maybe you could say a little bit about your background, your parents, where you lived during your first years?
Munk:Well, my grandfather — there's a little bit of that revealed in here.
Aaserud:Yes, a little bit.
Munk:My grandfather was a successful banker, and did in fact have a private bank which had a branch in London and eventually one in New York. The reason I came to America was that my mother had decided that I should become a banker and work in the New York bank. I did go to America at the age of 14, very young, went for a year to prep school in New York State, and then worked in the bank for some three years. I made a mess of it and didn't like it, and then went as far as I could from New York into Pasadena. I very naively appeared at the Caltech Dean's office, telling him I was going to come, and he asked me to wait till he got my file. I said, "There isn't any file, I didn't realize I had to go apply before I came." It was a marvel; it was amazing that I got in at all.
Aaserud:So you just went to Caltech; you decided to go there?
Aaserud:What was the background for your interest in Caltech?
Munk:I liked the Spanish names like Pasadena and San Marino. I sort of fell in love with those Spanish names and on that basis decided that I'd like to go. It was very irrational and unscientific.
Aaserud:But did you have an idea about what you wanted to do?
Munk:Oh, I wanted to do something in environmental sciences, and I really didn't know what. It could have been seismology or something else. I really didn't think about oceanography at all. That didn't happen until my second year, and until I met a girl who lived in La Jolla. The only job I could think of for the summer to get me here was one at Scripps.
Aaserud:It says here that you graduated in applied physics at Caltech.
Aaserud:Was that before you came here the first time?
Munk:No, I came for one summer here before I graduated — a summer job. Then I became enamored with it, and then I continued with a Master's degree at Caltech, but the work was actually done down here. It was an oceanographic subject.
Aaserud:What did the applied physics imply?
Munk:It's sort of a mixture of electrical engineering and physics. I think you would call it electrical engineering today. And then I took a Master's degree in geophysics under Gutenberg who is a very well known geophysicist.
Aaserud:Where was that?
Munk:At Caltech. He's a seismologist, but I actually did my work on an oceanographic subject.
Aaserud:The American Men and Women of Science says University of California, I think; that's why I'm asking.
Munk:Well, my Master's was from Caltech. My Doctor's was also from Scripps, but in fact was given technically at UCLA. My Master's degree as I said was from Caltech, but I did my work down here. It was based on Scripps work and Sverdrup was director.
Aaserud:But Gutenberg was the formal connection.
Munk:Gutenberg was at Caltech. He was head of the Department of Geophysics. I took my degree in geophysics at Caltech but I worked in fact with Sverdrup at La Jolla. Very complicated.
Aaserud:And that was on internal waves in the Gulf of California?
Munk:Yes, a second rate paper.
Aaserud:Which never reached publication?
Munk:It was published.
Aaserud:It was published, yes. It's on your list here I suppose, then. So you decided to enroll at Scripps as a PhD student after that. Were you already well acquainted with Sverdrup then?
Munk:Yes, I met him, and when I'd gotten through my Master's degree, I asked him whether I could become a student here. He said he'd like that very much, but he couldn't think of any one job that would open up in the field.
Aaserud:So he warned you about that.
Munk:He warned me about it, and I think it's a good indication not to pay any attention to what's fashionable at the moment. I think most of our students go into the fashion of yesterday. By the time they get finished it's overpopulated.
Aaserud:Sometimes, not always, but the first predictions don't always work out. Could you say something about your first impression of Harald Sverdrup?
Munk:Yes. Oh, he was wonderful. He was my mentor, teacher, friend, and I owe lots and lots to him and his wonderful wife Gudrun. They sort of took me over. You see, I was essentially the only student down here. I occupied a very special position. And I often had dinner with them and I used to play tennis with Gudrun. Did you know the family at all from your Scandinavian days?
Aaserud:No, I didn't, but it's a prominent family.
Munk:It's a prominent Scandinavian family. Harald Sverdrup was writing a book which became very famous, called The Ocean, Its Physics, Chemistry and Marine Biology, and he used me as a guinea pig for his chapters. He would sort of have a big desk in his office, and he put various things on the table, and then he'd try and pull it together. Then he'd call me in, he'd sort of have me listen to him before he would dictate it, and I would sit there. It was a great privilege to listen to him and to tell him where I was confused or not. It couldn't have been a nicer way to learn the subject.
Aaserud:He was actually working on that when you came?
Munk:On that book. Yes.
Aaserud:Then you enrolled here in —
Munk:— it must have been 1940.
Aaserud:And then of course the war came, which didn't prolong your education but it probably prolonged the completion of it.
Munk:Well, it probably did both. I was very concerned about the war, and I actually left and volunteered in the Army. I didn't wait, wasn't drafted. I joined as an enlisted man. I'd gotten a Master's degree, and I didn't really want to come in as half-assed scientist or whatever you'd call it. So I volunteered, and I did not volunteer the fact that I'd gone to university when I joined. In fact, I preferred that.
Aaserud:Roger Revelle has some amusing stories about that.
Aaserud:In his article in the booklet celebrating your birthday.
Munk:Yes. And so I had a brilliant career: I entered as a private and ended as a corporal!
Aaserud:Perfect. What specifically was your reaction to the war? You enlisted before Pearl Harbor?
Munk:Before Pearl Harbor, yes. Austria as you know had been occupied in 1938, and so that made me more concerned, I guess, than most people, al though my parents really got out without too much trouble. My step-father had been in the government at the time when Schuwchnig was Chancellor. But I just wanted to do something about it.
Aaserud:But you never of course got into the —
Munk:I never got into the fighting. What happened is that things changed after 14 months. You may recall that there was a long time when there was a stalemate, and nothing happened. I was really quite bored. We'd just be listening to lectures on military courtesy — when to salute and when not to salute. It's not the most interesting subject in the world. And then when Harald Sverdrup called and said, wouldn't I like to join him in an effort for the Navy to get ready on anti-submarine warfare, I managed to get discharged on the basis of having a vital piece of education. There were very few people who had had any training in oceanography, and of course it was totally unknown when I did that that a week later Pearl Harbor would happen. Otherwise I would never have gotten out. And my unit was sent over, one of the first that was totally decimated —
Aaserud:— except for the sergeant —
Munk:— Ruebush, whom I hate till today. Yes, oh yes.
Aaserud:He's still around? You haven't kept up?
Munk:I have no idea. He's a symbol. I always tell my children that. If I ever see him, I would kill him. It's sort of our story.
Aaserud:Was that formally a transfer?
Munk:No, I was discharged for purposes of the US government, it was called, and then immediately drove down and went to work at what is today the Naval Ocean Systems Center — it was then the US Navy Radio Sound Laboratories — on Point Loma. Within a week after I started working here, the Pearl Harbor attack came — immediately after. Then we were all very busy.
Aaserud:And there you worked with Harald Sverdrup?
Munk:With Sverdrup. Roger Revelle was in uniform — he was a lieutenant, senior grade — and Dick Fleming, Martin Johnson, Carl Eckart — a whole slew of other people. It was very interesting.
Aaserud:So it was Scripps essentially.
Munk:We were working on problems of anti-submarine warfare and relations to oceanography.
Aaserud:I think that was Revelle too, writing about your and Sverdrup's clearance problems.
Munk:We had a very sad clearance problem.
Aaserud:Yes, it was because your countries were occupied, I suppose.
Munk:We've never really gotten the story straight, and I have not cared to follow it up. That was very awkward, but it was eventually cleared up, and ever since then I've been involved part time with Navy problems. I've enjoyed a very high clearance and have worked in that way ever since, but for a little while it was very awkward.
Aaserud:How would you compare the kind of work there with the kind of work you did with Sverdrup in the academic environment?
Munk:It wasn't so different. Our number one thing was that we decided to work on a method of predicting sea swell and surf for landing operations. I had learned, by accident almost, that there was to be an Allied landing in Northwest Africa. It turned out that the question of surf and its effect on landing craft had been essentially overlooked. I mean, people just thought that it would be all right and you'd get in. I think the numbers were such that if the waves were higher than seven feet, the landing craft, at the time called LCVP, would likely be broached, pushed parallel to shore, swamped with water, drowning the poor suckers in it.
Aaserud:Yes, and that happened with a certain percentage of the craft.
Munk:I think it was a kind of an original idea. I said, "Gee, we ought to attempt to find out how to predict for a few days in advance so we can pick a good day." And I worked on that, in a paper that's sort of become known, although from looking back on it now, it wasn't good; but it was better than nothing, certainly. Then Harald Sverdrup joined me and looked over it, and we worked together. It was very exciting and we did do a reasonably good job in picking conditions. Then that was used subsequently at all landings, including the ones in Europe.
Aaserud:So this was a problem that was defined by yourself from the beginning.
Munk:Yes. It hadn't been considered as a problem before then.
Aaserud:Was the problem presented to the Navy before you started working on it?
Munk:Well, the Air Force actually was responsible for all meteorological predictions, and so I did this work for the Air Force. There had been zero previous work on that problem, as far as I know.
Aaserud:And the work was actually used.
Munk:Yes, it was used in two ways. We helped directly with the prediction, and then we had Navy and Air Force officers assigned to take courses in prediction, and we would try sort of to teach what you learned yesterday. It wasn't like teaching quantum mechanics — Mr. Bohr and your kind of things. I mean, we tried to figure out what to do; it was a very exciting time, really. Day by day research and teaching.
Aaserud:So you were rather distant from the Defense establishment as such.
Munk:Well, except that we had officers here with whom we talked. No, I never participated in uniform in anything in the war.
Aaserud:After that, of course, you got back to Scripps again. Was there any relationship between the work at NOSC and at Scripps?
Munk:No. Well, let's see. I was then not connected. I went back to Scripps, and I wrote up some work on the waves — we both did. Then I did some work on beach erosion processes due to waves, with Mel Traylor. There's a paper in there. He was a Marine captain who had his eye shot out, and he was sitting here in La Jolla waiting to get a glass eye from the Navy hospital. We met at a party and liked each other, and then we worked together for a year or two, and had a very successful time. We liked working with each other. And so it sort of went from waves to beach erosion problems due to waves, and finally, what the effect of waves action on engineering structures is. Somehow by accident about a week ago someone mailed me a paper from that time which I'd totally forgotten and never published. I think it was the first calculation of wave forces on drilling structures offshore. Nobody had done that, and I tried to estimate the forces on it, and I made some calculations. A drilling structure was built by Humble Oil, they used my numbers, and it was thrown over during a storm and was a total loss. So there were some problems.
Aaserud:When was that, did you say?
Munk:That must have been sort of two or three years after the war. There is a paper here, "Wave Action on Structures," which comes out of this era. I think it's 1948. [Bibliography, #10]
Aaserud:So that work on erosion, that was pre-dissertation?
Munk:Yes. I got lazy and didn't write a thesis, and one day Harald Sverdrup said I'd better write a thesis or I'd have to leave Scripps. I really enjoyed doing other things better.
Aaserud:How were you supported during that period?
Munk:I got paid, poorly at least, somehow as a graduate student. And then I wrote a thesis in two weeks — that's number six here, 1947 — on sort of a trivial subject, and also not very good. But my committee knew even less about it than I did, so they passed me. It was very lucky.
Aaserud:You know, I'm aiming for a discussion of JASON. How did you come to concern yourself with that kind of question? I guess the war experience must have had something to do with that.
Munk:Yes. And then when JASON started, Keith Brueckner was a key man for a while, and he invited me to join. It was the second year of JASON. I think Bill Nierenberg came in just about the same time or maybe a little later. I forgot what year I joined. What year did JASON start?
Munk:I think I must have joined in 1960.
Aaserud:Could we say a little bit more about the forties and fifties before we get to that?
Aaserud:I'm of course especially interested in your Guggenheim Fellowship, which may have been your first trip abroad, at least as a scientist.
Munk:I've had three Guggenheims. My first one was in Oslo in 1948, I was at the University of Oslo at Blindern — is that correct? I went there because Harald Sverdrup had gone there, and I guess I kind of missed him. He'd gotten to be director of the Norwegian Polar Institute [Norsk polar institutt] in Oslo. But then I didn't see terribly much of him. He was very busy working on a new educational system for Norway. It was the Sverdrup Committee, and the purpose was to get away from the German method of having a Herr Professor who had full power over the life of the students. Harald Sverdrup sort of helped soften up the Norwegian educational system, and he was very busy.
Aaserud:There wasn't much of Blindern then.
Munk:There wasn't much of Blindern, but I loved Norway. I loved to stay there. And I wrote a paper — that's No. 20 — on the wind and ocean circulation, which has been successful. At least ONR is celebrating its 40th, and this paper was chosen as one of the papers that they helped support or something.
Aaserud:So who did you work with in Oslo when you didn't see Sverdrup all that much?
Munk:What was his name? I forgot. It was a young man, Hoiland; does that mean anything to you?
Munk:I got to know him. He had a brilliant beginning of a career and then got into a drinking problem — never lived up to his potential.
Aaserud:How come you chose Oslo to go to? Was it Sverdrup?
Munk:It was Sverdrup.
Aaserud:Because it wasn't particularly lively.
Munk:Not particularly lively, but of course it had a tremendous reputation and tradition. I did meet some of the people, and I'm always so glad I went. I met Helland-Hansen. I met old Ekman before he died. I had a really very interesting discussion with him. Helland-Hansen was impressive, I thought. So I kind of learned about the great old men — the first generation of modern hydrodynamic oceanography.
Aaserud:It's definitely before my time. And then you went to Cambridge in 1955 and in 1962.
Munk:I just came back from there having gotten the degree this past week.
Aaserud:Oh really? Congratulations!
Munk:That's why we were in Europe last week. So I have a degree from the two places where I had Guggenheims. I never thought of it. Bergen gave me a degree and now I have one from Cambridge. So maybe that's what happens — you take a Guggenheim somewhere and you get a degree from there.
Aaserud:I don't think it's completely a general rule. Your work after the war, say until about 1960?
Munk:Right. I became interested in the rotation of the earth problems at about that time, and not in a very deliberate way. I guess that's true of most people. I got interested by accident. I'd seen a paper that I thought was kind of funny and decided to think a little about it and became interested. Then I spent a good part of ten years learning about that problem, and eventually writing a book on the subject with MacDonald.
Aaserud:And in the meantime?
Munk:In the meantime it's a flowering field. You know, there's lots of work being done, because the observations are now so precise.
Aaserud:That book is interesting, in that it's in the historical tradition in a way. It doesn't compete with many other books at the time.
Munk:No, I think it's like wave prediction. I don't know whether I said that in here, but I have chosen subjects which were not being worked on by anybody else. And I claim in this article that it's because I don't like to read.
Aaserud:Yes, I know that.
Munk:So there was no work going on an earth rotation, just like there was no work going on on waves really when we started wave prediction.
Aaserud:Well, I don't quite buy that because you have a large bibliography in that book that goes back a hundred years.
Munk:Yes, that's true, but not as a coherent subject. It was about people who had worried about length of day, people who worried about latitude problems, and we I think were the first to say there is a real geophysical tool here, and these problems are brought together.
Aaserud:In the meantime of course you advanced professionally at Scripps — assistant professor in 1947, professor in 1954, then associate director of the Institute for Geophysics in 1959.
Munk:Yes, but that was not a natural sequence. I, at the time, was unhappy at Scripps. I thought we had gotten too far away from certain kinds of scholarship, and I was planning to leave for Harvard; I'd been offered a job there. There'd been a few jobs. You know, I'm probably one of the few people who's never moved, but there had been a few interesting job offers. I was offered a job at Harvard and I was offered a job at MIT at the same time. I thought of going, and then Roger Revelle said, "What is it that you can do there that you can't do here?" I said I was in the mood to start a group of people who would be working in geophysics more generally than just in oceanography, although I would have a marine element. Then he said, "Well, why don't you do it here?" That and my wife Judy, has played very much of a role in any decisions I made; we thought that was a good idea and we ought to do it, and she eventually designed the building that you visited me in, and we did this very much together.
Aaserud:That's you, essentially, that building.
Munk:That's Judy, my wife.
Aaserud:Yes, you in the American sense, both of you.
Munk:Both of us.
Aaserud:All right, so Revelle wanted to keep you and that turned into the Institute, so to speak, in 1959.
Aaserud:What about precursors of JASON or discussion of that kind of work during that period between the war and 1959 — any work, any discussion?
Munk:Let's see. My major JASON contribution, I thought, was in 1967 — there should be a reference here. I think I'm probably responsible for starting thinking about nonacoustic ASW — nonacoustic methods of detecting submarines. There are several things that are publishable. And we wrote a paper in 1967 which had a significant influence on subsequent events. I thought that was an interesting development. It was a good paper, and it's gone in many many, many different directions since [Bibliography, #115].
Aaserud:But my question was whether there were any JASON-like developments before JASON — whether you participated in discussions of how to advise government in such defense matters.
Munk:No. After the war ended, I sat on the usual number of Washington committees. But being really involved with a Defense problem came entirely through JASON.
Aaserud:What about work here in the meantime, for example for the Navy?
Munk:The Navy paid almost all of my research, but it was more through the ONR.
Aaserud:ONR — there were hardly any strings attached to that kind of support.
Munk:No strings. Absolutely and beautifully free.
Aaserud:Yes, it's known for that. There weren't any specific summer studies or consultantships, for example?
Munk:Not much. There must be some. I'd have to think about it. But once JASON started, I decided that I'd like to use it and use it alone. From then on I really refused any consulting other than that. I thought one was enough, and I liked to spend the rest of the time on my job. I really have tried very hard not to be involved in anything else.
Aaserud:I've spoken to several JASON members who kind of agree with that, and who say they would never have been involved in that kind of work if it didn't allow for practically complete devotion to academic work.
Munk:It did, yes. It did. Now, in fact, in some ways, I think many of us have found out that academic work has gained rather than lost. I mean, it has lost some time, because we might have spent the summer with it instead of coming here; but it has gained insofar as we all broadened tremendously.
Aaserud:What about your relation to physics and physicists during that period? JASON of course is essentially or was essentially a group of physicists. In anticipation of that, what was your contact with those kinds of people before JASON?
Munk:Well, it was my first real experience. I knew Carl Eckart well who was a physicist. Otherwise, it's been very curious. I am an oddity at JASON — less so today than at the time. They found it very amusing to learn about such things as ocean problems. The JASON group is wonderful to work with. I thought they were naive about the way in which you work on observational and natural sciences, and like many physicists, they were not exactly modest about their own interpretation of their talents. On the other hand, it was a tremendous experience for me to learn more physics. In fact, I have regretted that during my many JASON years, I did not do more of this.
Aaserud:Was it more you teaching them than the other way around?
Munk:Well, no, not when it came to solutions. But in suggesting the problems.
Aaserud:Maybe we should digress a little bit on your wife, since she did play such a role. When did you marry?
Munk:35 years ago. I'm not sure! Let's see the date now — something like 35 years ago; I don't even know whether it's in here. It's my second wife. I had been married before for seven years. When I was in Norway, I was with my first wife.
Aaserud:I see. So that was about 1954 or 1955.
Munk:Right. And I must have been divorced about three years after Oslo; that should tell us. When was I in Oslo again?
Munk:1948. Let's see; I got married in 1952, that would be about right. It must have been about 1952. I know the date but not the year.
Aaserud:As long as you remember that, you're probably not asked about the year, yes. What about your own background for joining JASON? Who asked you?
Munk:Keith Brueckner. And Marshall Rosenbluth was a member. They were working on hose instabilities then. This was the early days of particle beam studies — not at all oceanographically oriented, and I was an outsider. But then as we got into Navy-oriented problems, I found myself comfortable.
Aaserud:You were not asked for any specific Navy-oriented or oceanographic problem?
Munk:No, it never quite worked that way at JASON. I don't quite understand how the process works, but it's not very deliberate.
Aaserud:You knew Brueckner?
Munk:Yes, he was a colleague at UCSD. And then many of the other people came in. We've been enormously stable, as you have noticed.
Aaserud:The average age has increased —
Munk:— not as much as it might. There's a real attempt to get young people in.
Aaserud:Yes, there is. But there is a very, very constant core. What were the general motivations for joining JASON, do you think? Was it a concern for national security generally?
Munk:I think I believed in the principle that university people should spend a fraction of their time on problems — go out, chicken! Wst! — on problems of national security. Go on! I'm spoiling your interview!
Aaserud:That will be transcribed; it will add to the color.
Munk:That'll add to the color. Can you shoo her out? Good. Thank you. You're doing double duty.
Aaserud:Yes, good. She was a good chicken.
Munk:My wife Judy once lived in Portugal, and she visited a Portuguese hacienda with an old and broke Portuguese countess, who was sort of living there with her many children, and she's always had an idea that that's the life she likes best, and I think the chickens would always come into that, and I think we have a little of that in our house.
Aaserud:You were talking about your own motivations for joining JASON.
Munk:Yes, I believe in the principle that one ought to do that; one ought to spend some time on helping on national problems, not necessarily defense, but it has turned out to be mostly defense.
Aaserud:Yes, to come out of the ivory tower anyway.
Munk:If you wish, yes. And I've never been very much of a purist anyhow. It's been very easy for me to do that.
Aaserud:How common was that attitude at the time? Was it a general thing?
Munk:No, no. And the people who started JASON, you must have seen, very much had in mind that the wonderful relation that had existed during the war when the university people and the military people worked together so well shouldn't be lost. That was part of the reason why people like John Wheeler and others started it. And I think they were right.
Aaserud:Yes, it was a conscious effort, I think.
Munk:A conscious effort to maintain something of this sort, yes.
Aaserud:Through the new generation. Your tenure in JASON, has that been throughout the period?
Aaserud:When did you start, did you say — 1960?
Munk:We just had it sort of figured out. Well, JASON is how old, 26 years? So it was 25 years ago. 1961 or so. That sounds like it.
Aaserud:So you were, if not a founding member, an early one.
Munk:No, I was not a founding member. But I came in the second year.
Aaserud:Did you have any connection at all with the establishment of JASON?
Munk:With some people in JASON. I mean, I knew Keith and I knew Norman Kroll. I must have known quite a few. I knew Marshall Rosenbluth. I'd met them through the von Neumans. I probably knew quite a few people.
Aaserud:So did you work with von Neuman?
Munk:Yes, but not in JASON. Von Neumann was in La Jolla for a while, and became interested in using numerical computers on geophysical problems, and I got to know him. I admired him tremendously for his simplicity. There was never any problem understanding what he was talking about.
Aaserud:Did you do any collaboration while he was here?
Munk:No, nothing formal. He helped me out. I started working on ocean tides, and he gave me some ideas, but there was no formal collaboration.
Aaserud:Did he work for himself while he was here?
Munk:I think by that time he'd sort of become a sage. He sat around and people listened. Oh, these are his chairs. I inherited those. You're sitting on his chair. They went to his widow, Clary von Neuman, who then married Carl Eckart. She died, and then eventually for some reason I received them. They used to come and visit us here. We had a good time with them.
Aaserud:But you didn't participate in the establishment of JASON then, with Wheeler and Wigner, summer study 137 and all that.
Munk:No, I did not. I wish I had. But I did eventually meet the people who started it.
Aaserud:What about discussions at the time about different options of doing this kind of thing? Was there an agreement of JASON being the right kind of setup? Did you participate in any kind of discussion like that?
Munk:I think those kinds of discussions became very prevalent later on, when we went into Cambodia. Then, of course, it became a life and death matter. Some people left JASON because they were being criticized by their students. I was chairman of the faculty of UCSD during the Vietnam War, and the JASON problem came up explicitly. I never considered leaving on that account, and did quite well with the students, I think. They knew it, and I made it a matter of record from time zero. I found it to be perfectly all right to disagree with them on that issue.
Aaserud:But you had discussions about it.
Munk:Many. That's the time when people really tried to start thinking, is it the right thing to do or not?
Aaserud:But I was thinking about the earlier more innocent time; even then there was that kind of discussion.
Munk:There probably was. I don't recall.
Aaserud:I think Brueckner indicated something like that in another interview that was ruined by static. I'll have to bring that up with him again. I'm going to see him again. At this early period, JASON was exclusively into military affairs, right? There was no civil work, civil matters?
Munk:I'm not sure. It was predominantly so, but I don't recall, I can't say for sure, because there had been occasional things in other fields and one would have to look at the record.
Aaserud:I think ARPA was the only —
Munk:— sponsor —
Aaserud:— during those first ten years approximately.
Munk:Yes. Gordon MacDonald, who's due tomorrow, would know. He has a keen memory and you ought to go and get hold of him.
Aaserud:Actually, I have him on tape for a few hours. I went down to the MITRE Corporation to talk to him, but it would be nice to see him again. It's nice to see people again, because my ideas develop too, of course. There are always new questions coming up. To what extent do you think JASON was the response of a new generation to defense problems? You were mostly of the same age, right?
Munk:Yes. I'm a little older. I mean, I formally have to go into some sort of a senior status next year. I'm a little older than the average. I think I'm probably now the oldest regular member. But I wish I could say it was the response of our generation to a situation. It wasn't. It was the response of John Wheeler and wiser people to a problem that they foresaw. Then we agreed, and maybe enthusiastically agreed, but the thought behind it came from others.
Aaserud:It was a continuity in that respect. There wasn't any disagreement or any different approaches to defense problems on the part of the older and the newer generation?
Munk:I don't remember any of that.
Aaserud:And it was the result of the initiative of the scientists more than anything else.
Munk:Yes. JASON has always worked like that; although people suggest problems, we were our own masters, pretty well choosing it — not entirely, but pretty well.
Aaserud:Well, of course, you can't, it's the nature of the beast of course.
Aaserud:Organizational structure, to the extent that there is one, how has that evolved in time? Now of course there are senior advisors, there's the chairman, the steering committee, the program committee.
Munk:Well, I think that we've had the same structure always, if I'm not mistaken. You must talk to Charlie Townes about that. We've always had a very strong steering committee, very strong. They exercise almost dictatorial powers. They appoint themselves. I mean, when one person dies, the steering committee suggests new names. The membership is told and has a chance to object, but the steering committee has always been strong. One of the things I like about JASON is that it has as a whole had the courage to make decisions. We've asked people to leave occasionally. We've had problems, and we've faced them, and I think it has really exercised some discipline.
Aaserud:"We" meaning you?
Munk:Well, I've been on the steering committee twice.
Aaserud:That was my next question.
Munk:Yes, I was until last month for the second time. And I was on the steering committee many years ago.
Aaserud:Do you remember the period approximately?
Munk:Oh dear, that must be a matter of record. But there were sort of ten years between. I was in the steering committee, then off ten years; then I came again three years ago and served my term, and I'm now off as of July 1 — as of today, I guess.
Aaserud:But it's never been a formally rotating thing, right?
Munk:Oh, there is a term to the steering committee.
Aaserud:There is now, there wasn't from the outset, I think.
Munk:I thought there was, but I may be wrong. But what I meant was that the steering committee appoints new members, so it's a self-perpetuating thing. Hi, Judy, come and join us. Oh, can I persuade you to have a little drink? [Interruption]
Aaserud:We discussed your place in the leading structure of JASON, and you said that you had been on the steering committee twice.
Aaserud:Are there any members you would single out in particular that were particularly important?
Munk:Oh yes, Murph Goldberger. During my early days, he was an absolutely wonderful chairman.
Aaserud:Yes, the first seven years.
Munk:He was succeeded by a weaker chairman who eventually left JASON.
Munk:Hal Lewis. Well, there were certainly people with whom I interacted more than others, but I've had a very pleasant time and it's been a matter of friendship as well as colleagueship. I'm a great admirer of Marshall Rosenbluth's.
Aaserud:He's been on the steering committee also.
Aaserud:Yes, I should talk to him. He's here now.
Munk:I saw him today.
Aaserud:I haven't seen any membership lists yet.
Munk:They're certainly available to you, although they're not generally circulated.
Aaserud:I looked at the Henry Foley papers and there were some there. But I haven't seen any systematic lists throughout the period, which I would need. Selection of members, generally speaking?
Munk:There is a search committee for new members.
Aaserud:Has there been such a committee all along?
Munk:All along, always. I think they take their job at least as seriously as such a committee in a university. People suggest names, and they are checked very carefully. Then when there's a wide agreement that so and so would fit, we have them for one or two years on a trial basis. It's been done with very great care, and very few failures.
Aaserud:But some have fallen through. It happens, of course.
Munk:Yes. I think partly because people don't want to stay with us, rather than that we don't want them.
Aaserud:But there's a lot of prestige in being in JASON, of course, too.
Munk:Yes, I hope. Have a piece of cheese, if you like.
Aaserud:How constant has the membership been through the years?
Munk:I think probably unequalled in any kind of organization of that sort I've ever known. There were some lost during the Vietnam days. I bet you, if you compared the continuity, you'd have trouble coming up with anything of the same order, continuously.
Aaserud:That was members. We should talk about projects — how projects were decided on, what kinds of projects and how that developed throughout the period.
Munk:Well, we used to be more ARPA oriented; although ARPA is still our sponsor, people have direct connections to all other parts of the government. I think the way in which projects are actually eventually worked on is a mystery like the election of the Pope. There is certainly input on what are the immediate problems, and what people are interested in, and what their feelings are. I wish I understood it better. When JASON starts in the summer, you don't see how anything could come out of that chaos. Somehow or other, by the time it ends, you find that there are some explicit pieces of work that have been done.
Aaserud:So it all happens through the summer meeting.
Munk:There is a meeting in the fall and one in spring; and people do work in between, to some small extent.
Aaserud:But who decides on the projects? I mean, do the physicists come out with proposals themselves, or are they selected from a pool?
Munk:No, we hear sort of in a vague unorganized way as to what problems are of interest, and then people ask us, "Work on this, work on that." Then, usually during the fall meeting, we begin to hear some interesting things, and then in the spring meeting, we attempt to organize it a little. So and so says, "Well, I'd be willing to work on this problem if I find two or three people who want to work with me." And it sort of grows out of that. Then people assemble. Eventually we do a smaller number than we think we will. Bill [Nierenberg] would be a better person to talk to about that than I. He's very interested in that process. And he has a good feeling for it.
Aaserud:Has the way projects have been selected changed over the years?
Munk:We used to do fewer projects, with more people working together. For my taste, I sort of regret that we don't have just one or two or three themes, and that we have become more split.
Aaserud:What about independent projects as compared to evaluation of the work of other groups?
Munk:Oh, that goes on all the time. We're asked to evaluate someone's group. In some sense, JASON does that very well. When we are asked to evaluate an existing system, since none of us depend for our livelihood on JASON, we can afford to be critical. The government finds it difficult to turn things off that have been going on for a long time. There are people who depend on it, people in the Defense Department who worked with it and who sort of think of it as a way of life, and we are sufficiently outside that we can do that. We usually don't have any built-in dependence on it. I think JASON does that very well.
Aaserud:But of course that has to be appreciated from the other side for JASON to help on input.
Aaserud:And that might vary too, of course.
Munk:You're here on the 4th of July, are you? Because we're having a party for all of JASON here. We're all going to go down the canyon.
Aaserud:Maybe I'll stay.
Munk:Oh, please stay. In fact, my guess would be that if you want to get an idea of the feeling of it, that might be as good an occasion as any you'll have.
Aaserud:That sounds wonderful, yes. But I don't know if I'd be welcome, you know, with everybody.
Munk:Oh yes. Yes! We are inviting you, and we're giving the party. Judy
Munk:I invite you.
Munk:Judy's inviting you. Mrs.
Munk:And we have wine and beer and some kind of —
Munk:— performance on the stage. We have a little stage in front. I think you would get probably a better feeling for this thing that way than you might otherwise, or at least it would be a very good supplement.
Aaserud:Yes, because I have been careful about moving around in the area because I got the sense that, you know, it would be awkward for some outsider to intrude.
Munk:Really? No, no. We're the hosts. Mrs.
Munk:Then you'll get a more balanced view. Inhouse organizations bother me.
Munk:I think you're getting the wrong impression, because I don't feel there is any real — Mrs.
Munk:That's because we work against it. There are those that like to have it very informal. Nobody's for or against, it's just the way people are. And to have a good balance of people, you need to like everybody. And I am one way and other people are other ways, and I'm noisier than lots.
Aaserud:Are other people than just JASONs coming?
Munk:Yes, there are other people coming. Mrs.
Munk:To keep it from being too ingrown.
Aaserud:What about the briefers and people from the agencies?
Munk:I have no objection to it. I haven't even looked as to who will be here. If somebody's here whom we know, we'll ask them to come.
Aaserud:It's for the party more than anything else, yes.
Munk:But that gives me an idea. I have to find out whether anybody of the briefers is here on the 4th of July. I haven't done that.
Aaserud:That's a part that I haven't looked into yet, but I shouldn't do any serious interviewing, of course, on that occasion.
Aaserud:I'm sorry, I'll have to continue to keep my schedule.
Munk:We understood that.
Aaserud:What about the way results are presented when they're finally done? They're presented in internal reports and notes?
Munk:Well, there is during the last week a "Show and Tell." We usually have two "Show and Tells," one internally, where people are very informal about it, and there is criticism and discussion; and then another one for the sponsors. I think you would find if you could attend — and they are classified — that they're excellent. The standard of information transfer, the simplicity with which results are given are excellent, and there's a very definite attempt to stay away from a sort of a bureaucratic way of presenting it. The lifesmanship of JASON is to do it as simply and directly as possible.
Aaserud:But of course, a lot of these presentations are very technical.
Munk:They are technical, yes.
Aaserud:So it must be a problem of communication between the contractor and the physicists?
Munk:No. I think the attempt is made that any good work, if you understand it, can be made comprehensible to sensible people, and I think our presentations are generally very good.
Aaserud:You're talking about the written presentations now, or the presentations of the final result?
Munk:No, I'm talking about the ones at the end of the summer session.
Aaserud:And they comprise more than what reaches print?
Munk:Oh, then there will be written reports, usually much too late, because people are bad about writing things up. There are JASON reports coming out every year from the labor of the summer during which the work was done. They're generally carefully reviewed. We generally have a person other than the person who writes it read the thing. I think we do a good job.
Aaserud:That's another thing; I would have to have a list of the reports. Are those available?
Munk:Well, you have to really work with Bill. There are some classified ones and some unclassified. You ought to really work with him, as to what lists you can see and what you can't.
Aaserud:But the names of the reports aren't classified, are they? Well, I'll ask about that.
Munk:I think they're almost always not classified.
Aaserud:We talked about how the contacts with the agencies are established and that's pretty much settled now, I suppose. That's the meetings. That's what the meetings are for, the introductory meetings.
Munk:Well, the fall and spring meeting, and there's one person in JASON who is responsible for all contacts with each agency. There's somebody for the Navy, somebody for ARPA, someone for the Air Force, etc. It's their job to sort of see the key people, and make sure that it's being done properly.
Aaserud:There's a division of responsibility within JASON on that.
Aaserud:To the extent that you can and want to talk about it, what have been the main projects during your tenure in JASON? What kind of projects? Of course this question pertains mostly to yourself.
Munk:For myself, I've been Navy-oriented, and more so than some JASON people think I should have been. There is a very good tradition that you move around and not stay with one thing, and I'm afraid I somewhat violated that tradition.
Aaserud:It's closer to your work.
Munk:It's closer to my work. But there is a tradition that you should not continue your own work in JASON, and we tried very much to live up to that. I think I'm atypical and not a good example of JASON by having been too close to one group of people.
Aaserud:Yes, but you're untypical in a lot of other respects too.
Aaserud:And it must be harder for you to maintain that distinction than for a theoretical physicist.
Munk:I think that is correct.
Aaserud:How special have you found yourself as a geophysicist? Has it affected your communication with the physicists, for example — the way of thinking, working style?
Munk:No, I think I've worked well with some of the JASON physicists. I mentioned our report from 1967 or so. There were 15 or 12 JASONs involved. I was the only non-physicist. I think the collaboration has been good. You do want, when you have someone who is not a physicist, to have a person who can somehow or other manage to talk to them, and I think I can do that.
Aaserud:You had some interesting comments in your autobiography about your style of work. You mentioned yourself that you didn't like to read. There was also the thing that you preferred to take up a technique, and then let the problem come along rather by itself.
Aaserud:I don't know how you would compare that kind of working with the physicists, whether there's a difference there.
Munk:Well, I think there's a parallelism. If I don't like to read published papers, I even less like to read government reports, so I think that's quite consistent. It's much more fun to work on a new problem than to chew over something that's been done many, many times over again.
Aaserud:For example, when I studied the Bohr Institute, I found that George Hevesy, who was a physical chemist there, had a method very much like yours. His radioactive indicator technique, for example, he was able to push in all kinds of directions and apply to all kinds of problems, and he was everywhere.
Munk:He did that.
Aaserud:And he did that.
Munk:He's Jenny Arrhenius's father. His daughter is one of our closest friends.
Aaserud:Yes, I met them in Cophenhagen actually. Mrs.
Munk:He also put earplugs in his ears when he was bored at cocktail parties.
Aaserud:Just as a matter of demonstration? We were talking about your projects. We didn't exhaust that, of course.
Munk:No. But there have been different things. None of us permit ourselves to stay on one thing for too long. I think that's a mistake.
Aaserud:Have you continued the submarine detection thing?
Munk:Yes, but there are very many different aspects. I mean, there's so much difference between different considerations. I think if you ask Bill Nierenberg, which you ought to, he would say that it was not a very good idea that I stayed so close to one field, but I've been more interested in it, so I've permitted myself not to do the right thing. I really believe the JASON position is good and that I haven't been very good about it.
Aaserud:As JASON has developed, there has entered a difference in clearance status, right? I mean, the Navy is more careful about that than others.
Munk:That's correct, and that helped towards establishing a group within JASON that had some special clearances. I think as a whole it's a bad thing, even though I have enjoyed working under it. I think the principle is bad.
Aaserud:It leads to even JASONs not knowing what other JASONs are doing or being allowed to know.
Munk:Yes, and it's always happened, to some extent, but it's been worse for the Navy.
Aaserud:How representative are the reports noted in your bibliography of your work in JASON? How much is here and how much is left out?
Munk:Oh, there's very little. There are only two papers that are JASON related, and the reason they're here is that we were given permission to publish. This is not an indication of my JASON work that's any good. There is something on non-acoustic finding of a body moving through a stratified ocean which is obviously JASON related. There's something else on acoustics. There's a series of papers that were JASON connected, and there's even a book on propagation of sound through a fluctuating ocean from 1979 with Flatte' as senior author. We did a great deal of work on fluctuations, and this was in fact the product of JASON work.
Aaserud:There are some articles here; you have a paper with Nierenberg, for example, in Nature.
Munk:That was not JASON. That was on the scattering cross-section of a rough ocean, wasn't it?
Aaserud:"High frequency radar sea return and the Phillips saturation constant." [Bibliography, #116] It says in the article that it was part of a JASON summer study.
Munk:Oh, really? I'm wrong then.
Aaserud:Yes, I think so. Well, we shouldn't go through those in detail, but they're definitely not representative of JASON work.
Munk:On the whole this is not a JASON list.
Aaserud:Has anything been declassified, or can it be declassified, do you think, of your earlier JASON things?
Munk:Of the JASON things? We've done a lousy job in getting some JASON papers declassified and published. I mean, the acoustics was; we did get permission to publish that book and it was based on JASON work, and there is one other. But as a whole, I think those two lives are generally separate.
Aaserud:To what extent has there been a connection between your work in JASON and your work otherwise? What has the interconnection been like? Has there been, for example, some input from JASON work that —
Munk:That got me started? It's been, if anything, more the other way. I mean, the acoustics work in some ways started because I had done some work on internal waves at Scripps, and I realized that the results should be applicable to acoustic problems. Then, someone in JASON suggested that one ought to attempt to use new oceanographic information to see what it implies about acoustic propagation. It's the other way around. It was work done at Scripps, and it was clear there were some Navy implications, and those were then followed up at JASON.
Aaserud:Yes, so that's like the surf problem in the very early days. I guess that was the same sort of thing.
Munk:Yes, in a way, though there was no JASON involved.
Aaserud:And that's not so much the case for the physicists, I suppose, at least for the particle physicists.
Munk:Yes. I think you're quite right. There, their work does not generally lead to a JASON problem.
Aaserud:So you would not say that there has been a general influence of the defense-related work to, say, oceanography or your work in oceanography; it has been the other way around?
Munk:Relatively more so the other way around.
Aaserud:You mentioned earlier JASON as a broadening experience, an interdisciplinary experience. You also criticized yourself a little bit for staying a little too much in oceanography.
Munk:I should have done more physics.
Aaserud:Could you explain a little bit about what exactly it has involved for you in terms of broadening your field?
Munk:Yes. Among my regrets is that I really don't know more physics. And it would have been possible, if I'd spent the effort to have learned more. I'm not a good physicist.
Aaserud:We mentioned your collaboration with others; of course, mainly physicists.
Munk:Yes. That's what they were.
Aaserud:Maybe you could give an example or describe how that collaboration was?
Munk:Fred Zachariasen and I did the first job on acoustic scintillations, based on what I had learned about internal waves, and I think that was a pioneering paper. It started a new era of fluctuation study.
Aaserud:"Sound propagation through a fluctuating stratified ocean" from 1976. [Bibliography, #148]
Munk:Yes, and that led to the book that was published two years later by JASON, by Flatte'. So that was a case when it became clear that acoustics people at the Scripps had really kind of formulated the problem in a poor way, and I really didn't know enough to translate what I'd done at Scripps on internal waves into an acoustic thing, and then Fred Zachariasen and I spent all summer trying to make that connection.
Aaserud:So you really complemented each other then on that work.
Munk:Very well. Very well.
Aaserud:We've talked about JASON meetings, and I have a question here asking about the description of a summer meeting — how it works.
Munk:It's very informal. It's usually kind of somebody just saying, "Would you like to work with me on that?" and saying, "Ah, that's kind of interesting." It's really no more than that. And then, before you know it, there are a few groups that are really working together hard.
Aaserud:That works every time?
Munk:It has so far, to my amazement. An outsider who would participate in the first week of JASON would say, "How could you ever come up with anything useful?"
Aaserud:Have some people been frustrated with that kind of work? Does that fit everybody's way of doing things? Mrs.
Munk:I would be interested to know whether other people have that same assessment.
Munk:Do they have the same assessment? Mrs.
Munk:I doubt it.
Munk:You must know better than I do.
Aaserud:I think, generally speaking, I get that impression. I did speak to Francis Low and he stated that that kind of undefined structure or lack of structure was one of the reasons that he left, because he couldn't really deal with that, so he gave that interpretation in a negative way, not in a positive way.
Munk:If you want a very deliberate, well organized person, I think he'd find it very difficult. There's a little bit of organized chaos involved.
Aaserud:Well, there must be some organization. Mrs.
Munk:There are people who love organized chaos, and they get a terrific kick out of somehow organizing organized chaos, so the people who think that they're unorganized are really being organized. That's especially true with physicists.
Munk:Someone who's really very neat and who plans ahead carefully would go nuts in JASON. Mrs.
Munk:If they were the ordinary kind of man who plans ahead. You plan ahead. But you're not the ordinary man who plans ahead. There is a type of physicist who finds that a great mental challenge.
Munk:But I think the good physicists are willing to have more fun and more chaos, so I think in some sense, that's part of the fun.
Aaserud:You talked about the — practically speaking — almighty steering committee. Is that almightiness applied to the meeting?
Munk:They do attempt to put organization into the chaos. But not too much so. And they never run things; they have been very concerned on occasional personnel problems. We have had problems where we thought there were person problems and some conflicts of interest problems. That's very important. And notice that JASON has never really had a clearance problem, which is amazing, isn't it? We've been serious about that thing.
Aaserud:Individual members might have had a problem at some point, but there has never been any problem for JASON as a whole.
Munk:JASON has never been accused in 25 years of having had a leak.
Aaserud:Moving on, what about technical tasks versus general policy questions within JASON?
Munk:I think there's very little general policy discussion. The steering committee has a few.
Aaserud:Have there been any reports, or any explicitly science policy output?
Munk:Oh, have we worked on problems of science policy?
Aaserud:That's what I mean, yes.
Munk:Oh, I'm sorry. You don't mean our own policy. There have been some. Last year we did one on ONR, the Navy. I thought we did a pretty poor job. I think you should stay away from that. But there have been some.
Aaserud:There have been members of JASON who have been specifically interested in that, of course.
Munk:Yes. I think it's not our thing. Ask Bill again. He's very close to that.
Munk:What did he say?
Aaserud:He didn't feel comfortable about it; it was more that than that he didn't approve of it. It was just not is way of thinking. But he approved of it being done within JASON by people who wanted to do it.
Munk:There have been people in JASON who are willing to do it. It's sort of an anomaly. It doesn't fit our style very well.
Aaserud:Gell-Mann and Goldberger, perhaps, and Sidney Drell, of course.
Munk:Sid Drell. Are you going to interview Freeman Dyson?
Aaserud:Yes, I will. I will be going down to Princeton.
Munk:Interesting man, yes.
Aaserud:Has he been important in the administrative sense?
Aaserud:He's responsible for a lot of individual contributions.
Munk:No, he has not been in any sense an administrative leader. I can't imagine him doing that.
Aaserud:But a very important member in his own right.
Aaserud:So in general it's more specific technical tasks than science policy overview tasks.
Aaserud:Are there political discussions within JASON? To what extent are political views different, and to what extent do they or have they affected the choice of work?
Munk:Well, we obviously can't stay away from it. During coffee times and so on people obviously argue politics. I think we're sort of like most university groups, mostly liberal, but a sprinkling of conservatives, and I'd like to think that's been a very minor consideration.
Aaserud:You can't point to cases in which those concerns have affected the choice of problems?
Munk:I hope not and I can't think of any. Certainly not in the decisions made. That would be totally improper.
Aaserud:Vietnam would be the exception?
Munk:Well, it wasn't political. I mean, the JASON group worked very hard on Vietnam. Murray Gell-Mann was very much involved. As a whole, people I think disapproved of the Vietnam War, but we weren't asked to make a political judgment on Vietnam; we were asked whether we could design something like a fence to stop infiltration. Now, that's a technical problem, not a political problem.
Aaserud:But Goldberger, for example, regrets very much now that he even was involved in the technical part of it, because it was used for something else than he envisioned it was going to be used for.
Munk:That is correct. Now there are lots of people working on SDI, and you should ask them about this. But my own feeling is, they're working on the problems because they are interesting. There are probably also some people in JASON who don't want to work on it.
Aaserud:Maybe that's the way it works. Maybe the political implication is that they choose not to work.
Munk:Yes. They choose not to work, and nobody forces you.
Aaserud:But of course you have to work with something or else you won't be in it for long, because passivity is a reason for leaving, right?
Aaserud:Now, the scientific tradition goes very much toward openness of publication. The military tradition is very much for closedness. How has that affected JASON, and have there been conflicts? Does that involve difficulties?
Munk:Well, most of the JASON products I think are classified, and are not published. We try to keep as open as possible an atmosphere within the confined and secure quarters of JASON. But what you mention about the Navy and a few others has been I think very unfortunate in occasionally breaking JASON up into groups that cannot talk to other groups. I wish we hadn't done it. I'm one of those responsible for it. I think it's not very good.
Aaserud:Have there been cases in which you, say, wanted to publish something that was —?
Munk:Oh, that was classified? Oh, then there's no choice. We agreed as JASONites, if we do work that's classified, we don't publish.
Aaserud:That's agreed before you begin.
Munk:From the beginning. And you do not join JASON to improve your publication record. It's a lousy way of doing it. Once in a blue moon we publish. For example, I'm doing something this summer I would like to publish and I think I will. But I have to ask for permission.
Aaserud:Exactly. And in those instances, have there been any problems, when you ask permission?
Munk:I don't remember. It's usually clear that you don't even ask, in some cases.
Munk:You're worried about your next date; we can meet again. I mean, don't be too concerned.
Aaserud:Yes, wonderful. I enjoy talking to you. What about discussion of JASON-related questions in public? JASON generally of course has tended to keep a low profile. Some individual members talk more than others. Could you say something about that?
Munk:Yes. It's been a problem. We have some people who have a very strong public presence. Our most famous member is Richard Garwin. It's counter to our, I think, general taste — my taste, not everyone's — that we ought to do our job and keep our mouth closed. I think Dick represents a very responsible member of US society, and if he wants to speak, he should. He has been careful, of course, not to speak on matters that he's not allowed to, or he'd be in jail.
Aaserud:Or not a member of JASON, anyway.
Munk:But it's occasionally a problem. Are you going to interview him?
Aaserud:Yes, I am.
Munk:Good. You certainly will enjoy that. He's probably the most informed person in the United States on defense problems. He's a superb scientist. He combines that with his own political interests. It's a difficult thing to do, for him, and he's sometimes gotten both sides mad.
Aaserud:Yes, I know. Mrs.
Munk:Why are you doing this?
Aaserud:Oh, because I think it's a very interesting example of the connection between science and society. Mrs.
Munk:I only ask this in reference to the last question you asked, about making JASON public.
Munk:Oh. We decided, I think, that the JASON thing is a significant development, and ought to be properly documented, and when we met you — at least when I and others met you — we thought that you might have as good a chance as anybody we'd known before. I don't think this involves that we're going to be in Playboy Magazine!
Aaserud:No, not as far as I'm concerned.
Munk:But I would welcome a good report on what JASON has done, because it's part of American history. Mrs.
Munk:I have very strong feelings about this. Per se, the sort of big dinner parties they have.
Munk:Oh, that's different than this interview, though, Judy. Judy and I both felt that we'd gotten a little too ceremonial in Washington. JASON had some success, and we gave a big cocktail party twice a year, and I and some people in JASON felt that we ought to do a little less of that and do our work. So we have cut it down from two to one. Bill Nierenberg, whom you will see next, does think we should do that. There are some differences of opinion. They're not very deep. You know, people differ that way. Mrs.
Munk:But it's a symptom of something, when you start going that way. And if you look at historical things, people started to get too big for their britches when they acted this way. And I'm very suspicious of it. I've seen it over the years going from something that was more a grassroots effort in the scientific community to do something, into getting sort of that you're a part of the elite, and every time people start thinking they're part of the elite, it is the first sign that something's rotten. I get very angry at that.
Aaserud:Well, JASON has always been an elite organization, in one sense.
Munk:But I think they were more private. Mrs.
Munk:But they behaved themselves a little bit differently. The cocktail parties —
Munk:— were sort of more private; people did their own cooking, their own cocktails. We've become a little more fancy, go to a big hotel, have caterers. But don't get the impression that there are arguments; there are differences of opinion. I, as a member of the steering committee, voted against most big parties, because I don't like them. Some people voted for it. It's become more so as we are more successful. Mrs.
Munk:And there are people that are invited that aren't members because, it's the kind of an "in" thing to know —
Munk:— important people — Mrs.
Munk:— and to be invited to the JASONs. I don't know, it's a symptom. I don't understand enough about it, except that it makes me look at examples through the years of these kinds of organizations.
Aaserud:Well, it started out as a young and brash organization, and now the individual members are —
Munk:— older and more famous. Mrs.
Munk:But they make a great effort to have younger people always come up after them. You see this wonderfully healthy side of having these youngsters coming, like the Katz and all these youngsters, and that's absolutely superb; they hadn't done that tremendous thing, to try to always increase their younger generation. And you do bow out when you get older all by yourself. That's very, very healthy. But when you see this; oh, various characters —
Munk:— right — I think some people are taking themselves too seriously. OK.
Aaserud:So you weren't questioning my effort, my historical effort? Mrs.
Munk:I just wondered where it was going to go.
Munk:No, no, I'm very much in favor of having a good record of that 25 years of activity. I'm in favor of someone doing it who will do it very well. That's my feeling. Mrs.
Munk:I think that's essential.
Munk:That's different from being in favor of very public large amounts of fancy parties. I think it's a very different thing.
Aaserud:What has the internal reaction to outspokenness like Garwin — who is the most obvious example — been like?
Munk:Well, I think people have done the right thing. They said, "We wish he'd keep his mouth closed, but as long as he stays within certain accepted rules, we will defend his right to do so." And we've stuck to that.
Aaserud:He's made himself unpopular with some people, I'm sure.
Munk:Very much so. And you know, if we were a private company interested in profit, we would have asked him to leave, and we've never even considered doing that. Mrs.
Munk:He's a wonderful man.
Aaserud:Yes, I really look forward to meeting him. It took a little talk to get him into it, but now it seems like he's really interested.
Aaserud:But the general desire of JASONs has been to keep out of the public eye.
Munk:No, there are some people within JASON who've enjoyed the fact that we've in some sense become more known.
Aaserud:Even as JASONs?
Munk:As JASONs, yes — fulfilling a role of some limited power in Washington. I mean, there are some important people who try to get JASON support for their ideas, and you might say that's a success. I think we're split on that. Judy and I think that it would be better to be unique in the sense of not letting that become a part of life.
Aaserud:It has been much less of an interest organization —
Munk:— than some other groups. It could be worse.
Aaserud:That leads us to the relationship with the science community in general. How does the JASON connection fit into the view of the general scientists about what a scientist should do?
Munk:I think there are some people for whom our JASON connection is a negative thing. That had its height during Vietnam, but it does exist. I was chairman of the search committee for a new Scripps director; the fact that the new director, Ed Frieman, is again a JASONite was not viewed with favor by some members of our Institute. "Just getting another one of your pals."
Aaserud:Yes, I spoke to him.
Munk:You have spoken to Ed? He may not realize that. I'd better be a little careful. But it's not always a popular thing.
Aaserud:Of course not. And it's important for me to be aware of that too, of course. How unique do you consider JASON, at the outset, now, and in between?
Munk:I think, very much so. Partly because of its continuity, partly because of the quality of its members; it does have outstanding people. And partly because they have done some work that has turned out to be important.
Aaserud:And the combination of academic scientific activity and advice — there's probably no similar group.
Munk:I don't think so.
Aaserud:That's one of my main motivations, I think, that this study straddles the academic sphere with the government advisory sphere.
Munk:We've had some discussions with the English on that.
Munk:We've had some discussions with the British.
Aaserud:That's very interesting because I spoke to Gordon MacDonald who said he had participated in trying to set up a similar group in Britain, which turned out to be entirely impossible.
Munk:Well, it may happen again. There have been several attempts to work with and start something, and they have not been successful. There is now a group starting in England, this year, that may become a little similar. Whether our military will permit us to work with them is an entirely unrelated problem.
Aaserud:But still it's an interesting problem. But there is no other similar organization?
Munk:No, and if you try to think of the possibility of having an organization of this sort in the Soviet Union, that is in some sense an interesting viewpoint, because it would be totally impossible. It does in fact in some sense express something American, and maybe British, if they could do it.
Aaserud:It may be that the fact that they can't do it expresses something too.
Munk:I think so, because in a way it's a bit of an Old Boys' Network kind of organization — people who know people. So in some sense, I would have thought it could work in England. I don't know why it hasn't.
Aaserud:In that respect, yes; but the connection with government might break that British kind of Old Boy business, I don't know.
Munk:I don't know.
Aaserud:In this country, has there been any other organization that you have competed with or collaborated with in particular?
Munk:Ask Bill that. There is the Defense Science Board. There are some overlapping memberships. There are a few other things. I think that the important thing is that they're different rather than similar, though they're not totally dissimilar.
Aaserud:The next question I think is particularly interesting to ask you, because I usually ask the theoretical physicists this question. Do you think theoretical physicists are particularly suited for this task? Why is it that it's mainly theoretical physicists who have been doing it? Is it just by chance or is it because they have some special ability for it?
Munk:That's a good question. I'm not sure that they are particularly suited for the job. I think that theoretical physicists within JASON are a very small set of the theoretical physics community. They're people who are adventurers and who have an interest in numbers, so they're not typical of the theoretical community. And I would say that the theoretical physicists in JASON have been uniquely suited, but I think that's almost an accident. I mean, Marshall Rosenbluth is a unique person, and Murph Goldberger and Sid Drell. I think that a mathematically inclined theoretical physicist who makes his thinking in terms of formalism and with little intuition would not fit very well.
Aaserud:So would you say the theoretical physicists in JASON are an untypical population of theoretical physicists?
Munk:Probably the best. I have a feeling that theoretical people who are not physically intuitive aren't the best people in theoretical physics. Now, this comes much closer to your experience. I think that the very best in that field have a good sense of what's correct or not. I think there is a way of answering your question partially; we have not been particularly successful in getting mathematicians as members. There is one and there may be two. But I think it's a symbol of what I'm trying to say.
Aaserud:Well, of course, there's a historical element here too. Maybe the theoretical physicist was more like that when JASON started than he is now.
Aaserud:It's harder to enroll theoretical physicists now than then, I have the impression, and the new people aren't that exclusively theoretical physicists as they were.
Munk:They're more catholic; wouldn't Niels Bohr have been a successful member of this group? That's a good question to ask you.
Aaserud:Yes, it is. I don't think so. But of course, he grew up in an entirely different country.
Munk:It was a different kind of group. Fermi would be perfect; Fermi would have been the ideal JASONite. I think that's really kind of interesting. Fermi would have been ideal.
Aaserud:But I think Bohr more so than generally thought; I mean, he was after all a little more pragmatic than is generally thought, but not quite that pragmatic, I would think. What about JASON as a springboard for other science policy activities?
Munk:Oh, I think it's been demonstrably successful. I think there was a time when people said that JASON served as a springboard for appointments to PSAC, the President's Science Advisory Committee. That may or may not be true, but I think it's been very much a training group where people have gone into very high government positions.
Aaserud:It's interesting, in that respect, that when I spoke to Mal Ruderman he made a distinction between two types of JASON members. The majority was the group that were members of JASON because that was the only science policy or science advice input that allowed a full participation in academic work at the same time, so that for them it was not so much of a springboard into other things as a means of doing both. And he thought that the minority started from academic physics, then went to JASON, and then went into higher science posts.
Munk:I think it's very much the minority. But after all, when you serve on PSAC, you're still a member of the academic community. It's not leaving it. But there are very powerful positions in the government in science policy temporarily — I'm not thinking of the civil service type — and JASON has certainly been a way of making certain people's talents known to be very good in that kind of thing.
Aaserud:You belong obviously to that majority, I would say, right? You have maintained your academic connection very strongly.
Munk:Yes. But I clearly know ever so much more about the policy of the United States and what's being considered and who the good people are than if I'd not belonged to JASON. It's really broadened my view very much.
Aaserud:Now, the crucial question and the difficult question: the impact of JASON. What difference did it make?
Munk:Oh dear! Well, I think it's had a good impact in a field that shouldn't be as powerful as it is. Our Defense Department and our arms thing and, as far as I'm personally concerned, the SDI and all these things — I'd be very much happier if there'd be less of that. There's a huge number of people in industry and otherwise who are making a living on this, and I wish they were reduced by a factor of ten. However, given that there is such activity in the United States now, I think it's better off with JASON input than without. Is that a fair answer?
Aaserud:I think so. It's the insider-outsider problem, in a way — that you can serve more efficiently as a critical element by being part of the process than being entirely outside it. Is that what you're saying?
Munk:Yes. Judy has some trouble with that. She disapproves of so much of the Defense activity that she thinks maybe it's not such a good thing. I think that, given what the government decides — which is not what we decide — the money's better spent. And after all, if you're going to have a Navy, you ought to have a good one; if you're going to have an Air Force, you ought to have a good one. And I think we've been on the positive side. How influential have we been? I'm too much of an insider to answer that. I have seen developments within the Defense Department, which started with a JASON report, which became very extensive, so I would have thought that meant we've been influential.
Aaserud:How do you think that question could be answered, if at all?
Munk:That would be extremely interesting. I mentioned to you the problem that interested me when we wrote our first non-acoustic SW report, seldom quoted. I mean, people don't go around and say this happened because JASON did that report, but from where I sit, it opened a whole new group of things that might have happened in another way otherwise. I wish there were a way of measuring that. Citation index? No.
Aaserud:No, I don't think so because I would have to go to the agencies, I think, to see how it was received.
Munk:You ought to. Is it at all a possibility that you see the other side of the fence?
Aaserud:Well, in interviews there's a possibility, but in terms of documentation I think it's hard, because they're sitting hard on it — harder than JASON and physicists and academics generally speaking. So I would have to argue strongly for that. I haven't really tried it out yet.
Munk:What you could do, is to see the former directors of ARPA. They all started being skeptical of JASON and ended up three years later thinking that we had helped. But this is a limited number of people — ten people. I think they'd be accessible to you, and they'd be in a very good position to answer that question.
Munk:I don't understand why some of you have such a positive view of JASON.
Munk:I would say the scientific community that works on these kinds of problems. Why we don't have a scientific advisor for the President?
Munk:But we haven't had for how long?
Munk:We do. We do. Jay Keyworth is the Science Advisor and a new man whose name I forget. Mrs.
Munk:And what caliber is the new man?
Munk:That's an entirely different question. Mrs.
Munk:It isn't an entirely different question. I mean, you're trying to upgrade the participation of people who think hard about these kinds of problems. You come along and you ask for the candidates to go to these very important things. You know darned well that the last eight years have been —
Munk:I don't understand that that has anything to do with it. JASON does not appoint the scientific advisors of Presidents. Mr. Reagan got a zero input on the appointment of Keyworth, I would have thought. I don't understand the connection. Mrs.
Munk:You're asking about what kind of impact JASON has on the national scale.
Munk:That's part of it, and in that sense, we've had very little. Mrs.
Munk:And it's been going on a long time now. I would have thought that if it were really important, somehow that would have seeped up into these kinds of things. You say that people have been members of JASON who become so and so.
Munk:That's true. Mrs.
Munk:And never have I ever heard a discussion, since the last one. Eisenhower practically —
Aaserud:No, we're probably at a low point now anyway. Mrs.
Munk:Right. So where is that gap? I mean, when you're talking about improving the caliber of the people who are making decisions, which is what I think JASON was designed to do —
Munk:Oh, come on! JASON is trying to improve the caliber of the decisions that are made.
Munk:I don't think that was said this afternoon. Mrs.
Munk:You've just gotten through saying — I listened to the whole interview — that the reports that you give are first rate.
Munk:I said they've had an influence. That doesn't mean we've appointed the people. Mrs.
Munk:No, I didn't say that. I'm just saying that the caliber of the thinking that's going on on the problems that are dealt with on the scientific level in the country, JASON is very committed to. I would assume that's why you all work so hard. And somewhere there's been a gap, between there and the next group.
Aaserud:There was more of an overlap between JASON and the higher level in PSAC times.
Munk:During the Kennedy days, yes.
Aaserud:And now there's hardly anything.
Munk:That's true. That's correct. It is in some sense even amazing that JASON didn't cease to exist during the Reagan Administration. It could have happened.
Aaserud:It could have happened. But of course, that might be a sign that that there wasn't that input; they weren't important enough to be sacked.
Munk:Maybe so; a question for Nierenberg. He is a Republican and conservative, and it is amazing in some ways, that we have remained on the decision advisory level of the top people, like General Abrahamson. Why is JASON able to reach him and 20 others like him in the Reagan Administration? It wasn't a foregone conclusion.
Aaserud:To what extent has JASON, and does it still, serve as an inroad to the highest political level?
Munk:I think they have a significant influence on the SDI. I happen not to work on it so I can say that. And I think as a whole it's made it less bad than it would have been otherwise. I won't say that it's better, but it's less bad.
Aaserud:But there's always the possibility, of course, that when the higher levels disapprove of that kind of activity, then they disregard the advice. There's no control of that.
Munk:Absolutely, they have every right to ignore a consultant. But I don't think that's been the usual thing.
Aaserud:Well, it's a crucial question anyway, and how to get to it, that's hard.
Munk:I don't know.
Aaserud:It's a difficult methodological question.
Munk:I think the former heads of ARPA would be worth your time if you could possibly do it.
Aaserud:Yes. I have an appointment with Ruina.
Munk:Good. Good idea.
Aaserud:And John Foster, perhaps?
Munk:That's a good idea. And all the others.
Aaserud:Well, I think we'll wrap it up here. I have a new appointment. Otherwise we could continue.
Munk:Well, let us know if there are some loose ends or something; I'll be here all summer.
Oh yes, there are loose ends; there are only loose ends.
Walter Munk, "Affairs of the Sea" is reproduced in his 65th birthday Festschiff of 1982, which can be seen in the Niels Bohr Library. This Festschiff also contains Munk's bibliography, a copy of which is attached to this transcript. Munk's published papers mentioned in this interview are referred to by their numbers in this bibliography.