Despite often being referred to as the “nation’s timekeeper” or the “time lord,” Dr. Judah Levine doesn’t wear a wristwatch.
Levine is a physicist in the time and frequency division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and a fellow of JILA at the University of Colorado, a joint institute of NIST at Boulder and works to distribute the most precise time throughout the country, calculated by a set of atomic clocks. But Levine said wearing a watch makes him feel obsessive.
“It makes me too compulsive,” Levine said. “You look at your watch every two seconds. If you just start out five minutes early, then you don’t need a watch.”
But some of Levine’s colleagues would argue that being compulsive comes with Levine’s job.
As a part of NIST, he works through various mediums to distribute time calculated by the organization’s nine atomic clocks to services that require accuracy down to a billionth of a second, including the stock market, telephone networks, the country’s electric power network grid, and navigation systems for airplanes, ships and satellites.
“Most people don’t realize that very accurate time and synchronization is an integral part of our modern technology,” Tom O’Brien, chief of the quantum physics division and the time and frequency division of NIST, said. “NIST is involved in making sure that that technology infrastructure works all the time.”
Professor Paul Beale, a physics professor and chair of the physics department on campus, said Levine has perfected the art of managing and distributing the time produced by the atomic clocks.
“You have to understand the very deep subtleties of the physics and the engineering that makes the atomic clock work and to make it useful,” Beale said. “Measuring things incredibly precisely is what he’s made a living at, in particular time, and he’s one of the world’s experts.”
Choosing to stray from the family business
Levine’s office, on the fourth floor of the JILA building on campus, is tucked away behind a room full of whirring monitors and gathered bunches of multi-colored wires. The office, a creamy pink color, has two small digital clocks under pictures of Copernicus and Aristotle.
With a boyish charm, Levine rests his feet on his desk and his head in his hand, reflecting on his past work and his current dealings with undergraduate physics students.
“I don’t have sympathy for submitting your homework at the last millisecond,” he said of his undergraduate students’ online homework assignments. “Instead of if you had submitted the homework five seconds or five minutes early.”
A native of New York, Levine said growing up his family hoped he would pursue the family business: completing rabbinical school before continuing on as a rabbi.
“They saw me as someone who was supposed to carry on the traditions, so to speak, and it was sort of assumed from the very beginning that I would go into the rabbi business,” Levine said. “They were rather disappointed in the end that I didn’t. “
When he first began college at Yeshiva University in New York, he was enrolled in the pre-rabbinical program, while also working toward a physics degree, but had to choose one path upon graduating.
“When you graduate college you have to choose,” he said. “If you go on to get into the rabbinical program seriously, you then go into intensive study in that department; if you go into the physics thing, you go into intensive study in that department, and at that point you have to choose A or choose B.”
Levine is still an active member in the Jewish congregation Har Hashem in Boulder, and despite a deep-rooted interest in physics, he said his physics work hasn’t changed his religious beliefs.
“I would say the two things are separate,” he said. “The reform Jewish aspects are more concerned with social action and charitable stuff and so on, and those are not particularly connected to the scientific world, they’re not supportive or antagonistic, they’re really just separate.”
His research continues
After completing his undergraduate degree at Yeshiva, Levine went on to earn his master’s and Ph.D. in 1966 at New York University before going to Oxford to complete his first post-doctorate under the direction of Pat Sandars.
His work focused on the CPT Theorem, which looks at three fundamental symmetries of physics, after which he was offered another post-doctorate here at CU-Boulder for a period of two years, but has remained here ever since.
“I was offered a post-doc out here at JILA and I took it, and that was in 1967, and so I came to Boulder,” Levine said. “At the end of the two years, I was offered a permanent job at what was then called the National Bureau of Standards [now NIST] . . . but I decided to stay here.”
Director of the JILA Scientific Reports Office Julie Phillips said accident or not, she’s glad that Levine has remained a part of the CU campus.
“I actually think Judah is just a really fine human being as well as a very outstanding physicist, and I feel very fortunate that he accidentally got rostered here for 40 years,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s really accidental, but it seems kind of accidental. But it just sort of worked out that way. I don’t think he’s every going to leave JILA.”
Not only has Levine continued to be a part of the CU community but so have remaining bits and pieces of his original post-doctorate work with the CPT Theorem at Oxford.
“This experiment going on now at JILA is essentially what you might call the great-grandson of [the CPT] experiment,” Levine said. “It’s aimed in the same direction, of looking at the CPT Theorem, and that’s done by Eric Cornell.
Cornell, who received a Nobel Prize in physics in 2001 for his work with EDM, or Electron Dipole Moment, said his work does at times overlap with Judah’s post-doctorate work at Oxford because Sandars was one of the first to study EDM.
“Sandars is one of the people who was measuring EDM long ago, and now I’m working on it,” Cornell said. “So roughly half of my research now is on this work, which is exactly in a sense the great, great-grandchild of Judah’s.”
Cornell, a family friend of Levine and his wife Alice, said he feels that he is in small ways following in Levine’s footsteps.
“He’s a very self-deprecating guy, he doesn’t toot his own horn a lot,” Cornell said. “He’s a terrific colleague and he was chair here for a little while. I’m the chair now, so I’m following in his footsteps a little bit in that respect.”
A suitable title?
Levine said he thinks being called the “nation’s timekeeper” is a misconception.
“Well [the title] makes everyone feel good. If you can press something into a sound bite, you make a mistake, and that’s a sound bite,” he said. “After all, there’s the Naval Observatory, there’s colleagues in NIST, there’s satellite time transmitters, there’s a lot of stuff out there, and sound bites are almost oversimplifications.”
While Levine may be the most prominently recognized person working at NIST to distribute the time calculated by the atomic clocks, Beale said it is more of a collaborative effort between Levine and his NIST teammates.
“Its not just him, it’s been his group for many, many years,” Beale said. “But a group develops a personality, following the leader of the group, so this attention to detail and deep scientific knowledge and engineering knowledge is what [NIST employees need] to keep all these systems running.”
O’Brien said he finds the title appropriate on some levels, especially considering that the program Levine created and uses to distribute accurate time across the country, the Internet Time Service, boasts more than five billion hits a day.
“By far, Judah provides the service that is used by the greatest number of people of anything at NIST or the University of Colorado,” O’Brien said. “Obviously that takes a lot of dedication and commitment.”
Cornell said he recognizes that the efforts at NIST have been undertaken by several of Levine’s colleagues, but he nonetheless finds the title suiting.
“If you think of the national clock as sort of this altar, and you have to keep pouring in the sacred oil, the flame has to burn continuously, if ever it goes out, the gods will be displeased,” Cornell said. “He’s not the only priest who serves at this altar to make sacrifices to the time gods, but he’s definitely one of the major people.”