Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Lunching with the Time Lord

"When everything is working properly, and I'm doing my job, you don't know anything about it."

"I don't remember who made me the time lord; I think it is unfair to all my colleagues."

When I was in graduate school, I used to pack lunches and eat them in the JILA communal lunchroom.  Most days, I ate at the same time as Judah Levine and received many lessons about precision measurements*.

He's so humble, I didn't realize what a major figure he is.

Yes, he's dubbed our nation's time lord.  But, his influence goes far, far beyond that.
Levine soon discovered that many of the technologies he had developed for geophysics (such as computers and software for real-time data acquisition and control) were quite useful for atomic clocks and time transfer.

In the early 1980s, Levine began a project to distribute digital time signals using telephone lines and the Internet that started out small, but soon was growing rapidly. Today, after more than three decades of looking after the nation’s time, Levine has earned the titles of “Time Lord” and the “Nation’s Timekeeper.” As the nation’s timekeeper, his job is to keep and disseminate civilian time and frequency through a computer system that he developed and has maintained for nearly 20 years.
After I graduated, I worked in Weather and Navigation at LAAFB. When I told Judah my plans after graduation, he said that he used to consult there.

A *major* understatement.

The software techniques that he developed for recording precise times in different locations for measuring earthquakes? They became the basis for the software in Navstar and GPS as well as for delivering time over the internet and phone lines.

GPS satellites made GPS Radio Occultation possible, which allowed us to measure fronts in the stratosphere, which has drastically improved weather prediction.

Do you remember the days when synchronized traffic lights snarled traffic instead of helping it flow more smoothly? The temperature fluctuations experienced by traffic lights were too great for quartz clocks to run accurately.  Today, they run off time standards received from the radio station, WWVB.  "All time, all the time."

Pretty much every day, during some part of the day, I notice something that was touched by Judah and silently thank him.

"When everything is working properly, and I'm doing my job, you don't know anything about it."

My current boss says that our department provides infrastructure.  I recently gave a talk in which I used the phrase, "you don't notice us until something goes wrong."

Our work doesn't impact as many lives** as the Time Lord's, but think about all the things that your government provides for you, that you don't even have to think about.  Remember us on April 15th.

* When I wondered why my bathroom scale said I was lighter and my tape measure disagreed?  He explained how piezoelectric scales worked and broke down over time.

** Only ~15,000 people use our services directly, but their weather and climate predictions based upon data received from us impacts millions of people.


  1. This is a marvelous reminder of all that we rely on our world that we have collectively supported by paying taxes. Our human institutions may be flawed, but the people who work for them do great things (that we generally proceed to take for granted).

  2. So cool. Thank you for sharing. My son is obsessed with clocks and we have many pieces of dissected clocks around. We enjoyed watching this together. Something you don't always think about.

  3. Great post. Thank you.

  4. I had no idea, which means he really is doing his job.