Walter Munk

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ORAL HISTORIES
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Interviewed by
Dan Ford
Interview date
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Walter Munk by Dan

Ford on 2004 July 2,Audio and video interviews about the life and work of Richard Garwin, 2004-2012Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/40912-19

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.

In this interview Walter Munk discusses topics such as: Richard Garwin, JASON, anti-submarine warfare, sound surveillance system (SOSUS), U.S. Navy, American Philosophical Society. Walter Munk's wife, Judith Munk, was present for the interview and occasionally talked as well.This interview is part of a collection of interviews on the life and work of Richard Garwin. To see all associated interviews, click here.

Transcript

[Abrupt start of recorded material]

Ford:

My eyes weren't good enough to shoot straight, so I was able to avoid a career in the CIA. It might have been interesting.

Munk:

Might have been interesting, yes.

Ford:

Who knows. Can you tell me a little bit about your own background?

Munk:

I'm an oceanographer.

Ford:

I know.

Munk:

Not exactly Dick's field, but of course he knows everything. I'm not meaning that in a bad way; he really does. In Japan they declare certain people national monuments, and Dick is a national monument.

Ford:

I've heard of that.

Judith Munk:

We call them national treasures.

Munk:

Oh, national treasures. I think monument is better [laughter]. I've known him through JASON, many years. That's about it. We're not in the same field, but I appreciate his things, and he also has good ideas. You must have heard that many times now. I've never known Dick to make a quantitative error, in so far as you estimate something and sometimes I miss it by a factor of 10 or 100 or so. He doesn't do that. He has such a good feeling for things that he won't let himself out. I imagine he made some mistakes, but I'm not aware of them.

Ford:

I was telling him, when I was going someplace I would use MapQuest to figure out things. He said, oh, be very careful. They make mistakes. And sure enough, when I was going to visit Herb York, they gave the distance between one turnoff as a tenth of a mile, when in fact it was a full mile.

Munk:

That's a good point. You have seen Herb, have you?

Ford:

Yes.

Munk:

Yeah, that's very good. He has such a good judgment. He is a national treasure in his negotiations with the Soviets — really were wonderful, I think.

Ford:

I've been interested in arms control since I was a high-school student, and he offered to give me his "Race to Oblivion." I said I'd read it already when I was in high school. I'd be happy to have another copy, but… In terms of what Garwin does — I know about the nuclear weapons work and so forth, but I keep finding out so many things I never heard that he was involved in at all. I saw some passing reference to his having been involved in anti-submarine warfare.

Munk:

He has had a Navy association for a long time. In fact, I think I first met him at some kind of a Navy review meeting before JASON. So that must be 40 years ago.

Ford:

Have you worked on that subject yourself?

Munk:

Yes.

Ford:

I take it that's why — you worked together on that?

Munk:

We never worked closely together. We both independently have had interests in Navy ASW problems, yes. At times he really was quite involved.

Ford:

Was he associated with any particular innovation for that?

Munk:

I don't — I cannot think of any. He is, in a way, really a superb critic. If you run things by him and he says that's a good idea, that's a good idea. I'm not sure, but you may know more, whether he has innovated many things that became known systems. He might have. It doesn't occur to me immediately.

Ford:

I wrote a book about the nuclear command and control system…

Munk:

He innovated the H-bomb. He actually — he and Marshall Rosenbluth put it together after Edward had a bright idea.

Ford:

Yes, but on anti-submarine warfare, I saw references to — I think the name of the system was SONUS?

Munk:

SOSUS.

Ford:

SOSUS.

Munk:

It's called SOSUS and SOFAR It's a low-frequency acoustic system which was in its glory during the Cold War, because we were able to hear the Russian submarines at a 1,000 kilometers, and they had no idea that we were picking them up. Then an American chief petty officer named Walker turned spy and blew the thing. I think the United States had put in $20 billion dollars. $20 billion dollars in building a series of ocean hydrophones in the north Pacific and north Atlantic, which were at that time really a fantastic innovation. I do know about that subject. I worked on it.

Judith Munk:

Are the Walkers in jail?

Munk:

I don't know what happened.

Ford:

I think so, yes. Wasn't it like the father —

Munk:

It was father and son and more, maybe. Maybe the Holy Ghost got involved, too [laughter]. But anyhow, they blew it, and then the Russians within 10 years quieted their subs extremely effectively so that the system is not terribly useful today. It's still there. We use it now for research.

Ford:

I was wondering whether they kept it alive for research purposes.

Munk:

There are 12 stations in north Pacific, and we are using it, of all things, to study climate. We have an acoustic method — see, the speed of sound is a function of temperature, and we propagate typically 2-3,000 kilometers—long distances. The transmission is a measure of the temperature of the intervening waters, so you get nice, spatial averages of…

[off-topic chatter]

Ford:

SOSUS is being used for studying climate?

Munk:

I am. Nobody else is, much to the consternation of the environment community, because they think that our noises bother the whales. So we've been very unpopular with them.

Ford:

Do they make big noises?

Munk:

Do we make big noises? I don't think so. We send 250-watts acoustic, and the whales seem to pay no attention to it, but that doesn't stop various environmental groups from protesting. It's not always a very rational system [laughter].

Ford:

Did Garwin play any role in SOSUS.

Munk:

He was — I remember some review JASON did where he did participate. It is a fantastic system. People didn't know that you could go over 10,000 kilometers, but you can. He does know something about it. The system was not — he had no part in inventing it. That was done in the — what was the year when Maurice Ewing — I forgot. But anyhow, it was put in — but it's connected with undersea cable to shore, that's what so expensive about it. Various places.

Ford:

Was the processing center for that in Monterey or something?

Munk:

Monterey is a place. One in Iceland. One in Bermuda.

Ford:

I remember vaguely visiting Monterey when I was — I wrote this book called "The Button," about the strategic command and control system. I went around visiting all sorts of facilities.

Munk:

It was at one time a very important instrument for the Navy. They are now so concerned about coastal issues that they have paid very little attention to it. The number of Navy enlisted men who know how to process the data has virtually disappeared. Typical. If we started tomorrow, we'd have a 10-year training problem. I learned yesterday from the admiral, who's the new head of ASW, so I'm making a very precise statement — he said 10 years to get things started again. We overshoot usually in this country, I think. Don't you? In so far as when something is good, you go too much, and when something fades, you give it up entirely and then you have the problem of reconstituting it.

Ford:

It's certainly the tendency with food and medicine. One season, oat bran is the cure-all for everything. Then the next year, no, no, no, it's chewing rose petals.

Munk:

But Dick is an absolutely superb scientist and engineer, and has fantastic intuition, insight, into a huge variety of problems. You're not going to get away with a simple book, because of his broad interests. And I guess he shares his interest for arms control, and he now I think is a member — what is it? Didn't he join one of the economic — board of economic something or other? I may be wrong on that.

Ford:

That I haven't heard. In terms of the various things that he is involved in, if you were to suggest five that I might concentrate on…

Munk:

I would use the Navy as one, in the past at least. Certainly his involvement with nuclear weaponry would be one.

Ford:

Right, but with regard to the Navy, what specific projects…?

Munk:

I think the acoustics. The thing you were mentioning, the SOSUS system, which is no longer at the front line. But he appears — JASON — and their NAVY problems, puts in his ideas.

Ford:

That would be one.

Munk:

I imagine his work on nuclear weapons is certainly one.

Ford:

That's clearly one.

Munk:

But he gets a huge kick out of interesting ideas. No matter what it is, he immediately has something to offer in the way of some really quite profound remarks. It's going to be more than five. It's going to be more easy to think of things he hasn't done. He's certainly not a — I don't know what his contribution to science, in the sort of pure sense — is he known in the physics world? He's known as — for what he is, but is he known for his contributions?

Ford:

Oh yes. He did some number of very elegant experiments. He did this proof of the nonconservation of parity with Leon Lederman, and that's in every nuclear physics textbook, both because it has a significant result, and because the experiment itself was so elegant. There was something he — I guess, Lederman had some idea for this, and he just called up Garwin because he thought he could do it better with Garwin. This was on a Friday night. Garwin at the time was working for IBM on superconducting computers. So he comes home on Friday night, and Lederman has this idea. So they needed to use the cyclotron at Columbia, but it was going to go down for maintenance. They said, well, we'll just go in tonight. They worked all night, and the thing is that, in order to perform some measurement — I forget the detail, but the usual way was moving lots of things around. But Dick figured, oh no, it would be much better if they could make a stationary monitor for their purposes. He just went and found wires and found a lathe…

Munk:

So that result was achieved that quickly?

Ford:

They got the result within 48 hours.

Munk:

My God.

Ford:

There was some minor problem, because the thing he put together slipped off. But he just kept — Lederman went home, and he kept working and put it back together. Called Lederman at 4 o'clock in the morning and said, we've just proved parity. He immediately wrote up the report. Somebody else had made the discovery and had done a much less convincing experiment. But nevertheless, both of their papers were published the same week in the same journal, and the other people won the Nobel Prize for it. Many people said that they should've shared the Nobel Prize, but Garwin wrote in the paper that they were doing this work following the discovery by these other people. He didn't have to say that.

Munk:

Good for him.

Ford:

He's a very honest man. He's done a number of other things. He worked with a French physicist named Georges Charpak. They did lots of experiments together at CERN. He basically, I think, decided to spend his career really working on national security matters. It's a big sacrifice by the standards of —

Munk:

Most physicists.

Ford:

Most physicists say they would much rather make their name in doing pure science.

Munk:

He never really had a very high office, and that says something. I thought that, in some ways, how much better he would be than Harold Brown in thinking and judging defense. But like many very clever people, it probably would — could — might not work. Yeah.

Ford:

I'm not sure how he would function if he were a manager.

Munk:

He's too bright and really, in a way, too impatient. I don't think patience is one of his characteristics. Humility isn't either. There is a little bit of that required, isn't it, in some public jobs.

Ford:

I think somebody was telling me, this John Deutch — he had been Secretary of Energy and this and that.

Munk:

And he was head of the CIA when they took something home [laughs]. We know him — all of JASON — and me, too. Yeah.

Ford:

Somebody was telling me about the way he ran the Department of Energy, that he would have his weekly meeting with his department heads or whatever, and they loved him because the meeting consisted of asking each one of them, what can I do for you? What do you need? As opposed to, I know everything, and I want you to do this by Tuesday, and I want you to do that, so forth. When Deutch was at MIT, I think he had — he was hated. He was provost or something like that. At MIT he was quite dictatorial, and the faculty hated him. He just decided, oh, these academics, they like to discuss everything, and vote, and call out. I think he dissolved a couple departments. He just decided that that didn't represent cutting-edge science anymore, so [makes whisking noise]. It wasn't that the faculty disagreed with the substance — it was to the faculty, normally, to decide if you're going to do away with departments. Different people have different skills. Anyway. If we have the Navy and acoustics and nuclear things, what else would you put on the list?

Munk:

Well, certainly problems of disarmament have been of great interest to him. He spends a lot time thinking about them. Arms control.

Judith Munk:

He doesn't like to give up. He's also a huge detail-man. As I am.

Munk:

He decided we used to — we’d have the 4th of July for JASON here at our house.

Judith Munk:

For years.

Munk:

Then we stopped last year. I don't know. And he decided it should continue that way.

Judith Munk:

Everybody decided we were tired of it.

Munk:

But Dick's — the Garwins and we are actually going to be joint hosts. It's nice. But he sent an email that you have to see: So-and-so has to bring 15 Coke bottles. I think you should see — you know, that's a good — I want to show you that. It came today. Have you got it, Judy? I can make a copy. It really is an interesting… Yeah, look at it. Do you have both sides, Judy? Is that the email? Yeah.

Judith Munk:

This is an old invitation that I souped up. But this is the type of stuff that Walter and I did. We said we would serve the wine and beer. He decided that we didn't have to do that this year, so he just changed that. But that's the kind of thing we just give out to the neighbors. And this is the kind of organization that —

Munk:

A look into his mind.

Judith Munk:

I added the things down at the bottom, the sarcastic piece down at the bottom.

Ford:

That's funny.

Munk:

One thing I could tell you is…

Ford:

I have a —

Munk:

Keep that. It'd be kind of fun.

Judith Munk:

He takes himself very seriously.

Ford:

Well, you may need it [laughs].

Munk:

It certainly says something about his — he is a detail man, but most detail man are boring. He and we belong to some of the same organizations. We're both members of the Academy, and we're both members, more interesting, of the American Philosophical Society. Dick is quite active — we went to meetings this year, both places. I sit with my mouth closed. Sometimes I have trouble staying awake. Dick participates very actively in discussions about institutional matters of how to do the election and some other boring details with which these folks —

Judith Munk:

He's a detail man. He really is.

Ford:

What does the American Philosophical Society do?

Munk:

It's the most distinguished society in the United States. Started by Benjamin Franklin. Open to people of all — not just science, but statesmen, writers, musicians, composers, doctors. Limited to 700 people.

Judith Munk:

Used to be 400.

Munk:

It used to be 400. Absolutely fantastic society. One of the really interesting organizations.

Ford:

But what does it do?

Munk:

What does it do? It is for the — the subtitle is, "For the Promotion of Useful Knowledge." Very interesting. The word 'promotion of useful knowledge' actually is a copy of the subtitle of the Royal Society of London. Benjamin Franklin, who was there for many years, was very much impressed with… Dick's very active.

Judith Munk:

How long has he been a member?

Munk:

Not very long. Probably just a few years.

Ford:

Does it sponsor studies or have debates?

Munk:

The Academy, you probably know about. National Academy. They sponsor studies. They're supposed to advise the president.

Ford:

No, I meant the American Philosophical Society.

Munk:

They are really… Hard to answer. I think they're really quite important, but in a very subtle way. Certainly not in any organizational way, but it is probably the most interesting group of intellectual efforts in the United States. People do listen to each other. The meetings are absolutely wonderful, because they get such good people to talk to, and they're not overkill like the Academy, where you have five joint sessions at the same time, and you run from one to the other and don't listen to anybody. They have one sessions, and you sit down and one person per hour usually — right people in the world. They can get anybody from any place.

Ford:

I think I've only been to National Academy of Science meetings once. The thing I remember the most was when I walked in, there were maybe five or six speakers sitting on the stage. Most of them had a bottle of wine — closed bottle of wine — next to them. I was wondering what it was, and then whoever was speaking, he finished. I guess the chairmen of the session gave him a bottle of wine. It turned out that, at this particular session — I didn't know whether it was this session or the National Academy, but if you finished your speech on time, you got a bottle of wine. If you went over the limit, no wine. So I thought that was hilarious.

Munk:

Good idea.

Ford:

That's one way to run things.

Munk:

I didn't know that.

Judith Munk:

Ask if he's heard how you stay awake at talks now.

Munk:

I don't know whether Dick had anything to do with it. It's a game called Bullshit Bingo. Do you know about it?

Ford:

No, I've never heard of it.

Munk:

You ask the people who listen to a talk, preferably some higher office in the Department of Defense or State — each person in the audience to a priori fill out a form and make a list of 10 words that are fashionable at the moment in speeches, like —

Judith Munk:

“Out of the box”.

Munk:

“Out of the box”, and “connecting the points”, and so on. When the speaker uses it, you check off — yeah. When you either have three in line or three in a column or three diagonal, put your head up and you say, Bullshit Bingo. Two great big advantages: one is you do bother the speaker. The other is the audience listens to every word he says. It's a good game. And people do use these buzz words that sort of change…

Ford:

Or people who say "you know" all of the time.

Munk:

That's not a buzz word.

Ford:

True, but it's annoying enough. Do you get a bottle of wine when you make bingo? I bet that would make people — I mean, you could combine National Academy with JASON techniques. It doesn't have to be fancy wine. Just Two-Buck Chuck.

Munk:

We use Two-Buck Chuck, and it's quite good. Have you ever tried it?

Ford:

I've heard about it, but I thought it would say that on the label.

Munk:

No, no.

Ford:

No, it says “Charles Shaw”. The instant he gave it to me, I thought it was fine, but I think the house of every JASON person I've been to — I believe that is the house wine. Probably half of California at this point. Since I live in Paris, I have to have some loyalty to the French.

Munk:

I was going to say, anybody who has an apartment in Paris wouldn’t do that.

Ford:

Actually I will. A friend of mine here had emailed me something a year ago about it, and I asked a friend in Paris who's the number one wine critic in France — publishes an annual review of wine and all of this stuff. So I sent the email to him. I said you should taste this stuff. I finally tasted it for the first time, the white wine.

Judith Munk:

The cabernet sauvignon is very good.

Ford:

I will go buy some of that.

Munk:

I thought it's $2.99.

Ford:

Yeah, I think Dick says [overlapping] and three for the red, or something like that.

Munk:

Dick, he does pretend — I don't know whether it's true — to know something about wine.

Ford:

He seems to know something about wine, because once we started talking about wine, he…

Munk:

I would expect him to know a lot, because he — that's how he is. He was very interested in China for a while, at the time when very few people had gone. Am I correct in that? He was one of the early…

Ford:

I know he's been to China many, many, many times.

Judith Munk:

Did he ever go with Panofsky?

Ford:

I don't know if he went with Panofsky, but I was just talking with… Who was I talking with? Oh, Goldberger. Do you play any other games at JASON beside Bullshit Bingo? This is very important for the poor reader. [but Garwin never played “BB”]

Munk:

[laughs] You need to…

Ford:

Yes, if the reader is going to read through this technical material, every page has to have something that relieves the heaviness of it.

Munk:

I think this email could be helpful.

Ford:

That'll help. Herb York was telling me how — when he was in Geneva negotiating some treaty, the US government had some mansion there. He was staying there. He said it was a beautiful, beautiful place, but with a creaky old heating system. But the caretaker had put up all these notices to all these visiting people not to touch the heating controls or whatever. They knew it didn't work correctly, but don't try to do anything about it.

Judith Munk:

Were they listening devices?

Ford:

No, no, it was the heating system. But at any rate, Herb said that Garwin would have none of that. They needed more heat, so he went down in the basement of this —

Judith Munk:

I could see him doing that.

Ford:

— old furnace, and there were pipes going every which way, and all this. Herb said he couldn't make much sense of this thing, but he said after a minute or two, looking around, he said Dick just went over, turned one valve over here, turned another one over there, and then heating system works.

Munk:

You know the story about the guillotine — Garwin — that's been told often. It's a very good story about him. Do you remember, Judy? He was up for being guillotined during the French Revolution, and the machine misfunctioned. Two people before him — didn't work. He was next and he said, "I think I know what the trouble is."

Ford:

One question about his career is — it's obviously very helpful to have the military get competent technical advice, but on the other hand, as you say, everything goes overboard. There's so many military programs that are already so overboard. Is it really a good use of his time to be working for the Air Force helping to improve the next generation of fighter planes, when we already have fighter planes that are vastly too sophisticated to use in the first place?

Judith Munk:

Part of their plea is not to do things that are stupid, like sending men all over the place when you could —

Munk:

By the way, that does bring something to mind. Dick was on the President's Science Advisory Committee. I think when we were thinking of supersonic transport. You know the story, and I think that he appeared before Congress. Since Nixon had pushed it, everybody thought that the committee would be favorable. Dick had to answer our questions honestly. After a while, whoever questioned him in Congress said, we don't understand, Dr. Garwin. We thought you were backing that, and every answer you've given me has been negative. As you know, Nixon then disbanded PSAC the next day or something. I don't remember if my detail's right.

Ford:

That's essentially correct. I remember the SST business, because I was working for Leontief at the time, and there was a group of — I don't know — 15 economists, and they were all making statements about the SST. I think it was 12 to 3 against. But the thing was, they all wanted to come up with funny statements. That seems to be the thing. But Leontief, we were his research assistants, so we were all doing calculations and all this. The best statement about the SST was John Kenneth Galbraith. He said that he personally had a lot experience flying. He liked the government's interest in improving things for the passenger. But he said it was his judgment that if they really wanted to speed things up, they should put money into research and better baggage handling. For a small amount of investment there, you would do much more than this SST thing.

Munk:

Which has now almost disappeared with the needs of the French-English…

Judith Munk:

They had the last one.

Ford:

It's over. They're all —

Judith Munk:

In a museum.

Ford:

You can probably buy one and put it on the lawn. I rode in it a couple times.

Munk:

Oh, really, the Concorde. I rode in one once.

Ford:

I rode a couple times for free, which was even better.

Munk:

I should say so.

Ford:

Because one time I was coming back to the States. I was flying British Airways through London, and there was some big foul-up with the British Airways flight coming out of Paris, so that missed the connecting flight to go to the States. They said, well, you'll have to wait tomorrow. There are no more flights. I said, well — I opened their schedule. I said, you have a flight at five o'clock. They said, oh, that's the Concorde. I said yes, it's a flight. Oh no, no, no. You have a $200 dollar ticket; that's $5,000 dollars. I said it's your job to put me on the next available flight. That's what it says in the regulations. The poor agent at the desk said no, no, I can't authorize that. Well then get somebody who can authorize that, because that's what it says in the regulation. So finally they go and drag out some supervisor, and I was with my young assistant — and I'm being quite insistent, and my assistant says, they're cringing. Finally the supervisor says oh all right, and so we had our free Concorde flight.

Munk:

OK. Yeah, I thought that was nice, getting back in four hours.

Judith Munk:

One of the reasons Dick is so effective is because he's essentially a happy man. I think what keeps him happy is Lois. Lots of people look like they're not enjoying life, but he certainly… Are we going to sit outside in a while?

Munk:

Would you like to go outside?

Judith Munk:

I don't know. I thought we were all going to have a glass of wine.

Munk:

Oh, we could have some —

Judith Munk:

You've got a machine on you, so you can't move.

Ford:

You can be unplugged.

[audio break; then heavily overlapped, multiple-party conversation, then off-mic & ambiance]