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Judah Levine: The Nation's Timekeeper

Judah Levine
Judah Levine

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From the Partnership for Public Service
Monday, January 4, 2010; 6:44 AM

Judah Levine does not wear a watch and when he's at home he often loses track of the time But when Levine gets to his office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), time is of the essence. Levine is in charge of maintaining and disseminating the country's official civilian time down to the nanosecond -- a task that has prompted colleagues to refer to him as "the nation's timekeeper."

"My job is neat,'' Levine said. "The difficulty is that the time is something people take for granted, so it's a job that is sometimes unappreciated."

When Levine joined NIST in 1969, the available timing references were not accurate enough to meet the demanding needs of industry, commerce and research. Many of the crucial functions of the nation's infrastructure require timing accuracy to the level of one millionth to one billionth of a second.

Working with other scientists at the NIST Time and Frequency Division located at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Levine wrote the software and helped develop a sophisticated computer system that was linked to a series of atomic clocks. As a result, Levine created one of the most accurate time-keeping system in the world. The clock neither gains nor loses more than one second in 80 million years.

Levine proceeded to make this precision clock widely available to various industries where the atomic-clock-based time is used to synchronize telecommunications networks, control electric power grids, enable navigation systems and document financial transactions.

Thomas O'Brian, Levine's supervisor, said his colleague is "very demanding on himself and others" as he seeks to make the time services broadly available, maintain their integrity and seek new advances.

"Judah has had a long career and he continues to be impressive," O'Brian said. "He stays at the cutting-edge of science and technology and regularly comes up with new ideas of how to make things better. There is no evidence that he is slowing down after 40 years."

In 1988, Levine developed the Automated Computer Time Service (ACTS), which uses modems and telephone networks to accurately synchronize computer clocks to the NIST time. Commercial enterprises and the public at large could dial in, and get access to the data with ease.

Then in 1993, Levine created the NIST Internet Time Service that is now built into all major computer operating systems. This time service is responsible for coordinating the time on all computers and cell phones. The NIST Internet Time Service also automatically updates the time during the fall and spring daylight savings time changes. In addition, millions of people use NIST radio broadcasts to synchronize wall clocks, clock radios and wristwatches with atomic time.

Thomas Parker, a NIST colleague, said Levine is "one guy you would like to have on your team."

"If he says he will do it, you don't have to worry. He will do it and do it right," Parker said. "He is probably the totally opposite of what the public thinks of government workers. He probably works 60 to 80 hours a week."

Levine said that much of his time now is spent "ensuring the reliability and availability of the times services, and doing it on a finite budget."

"This involves real time monitoring of the entire system so that we can detect problems before users become aware of them," said Levine. "It's a job that when everything is working right, there is not a lot to do. But when something is busted, it has to be fixed fast."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work and go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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