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Panoramic view of the clock hall at PTB with the four caesium clocks CS1, CS2, CSF1 and CSF2.

What is time for?

Although this question may sound rather simple at first, it cannot be answered at PTB. As an eternal mystery the time phenomenon has preoccupied the philosophers of all times. Saint Augustine admitted that when he was not asked to define the concept of time, he knew the answer but when he really wanted to give the definition, he did not know it.

A plausible definition for time was given by John A. Wheeler: It is the phenomenon which prevents all things from happening simultaneously. And thus we are right at the heart of physics and of the question when exactly something happens and how much time elapses in the meantime. It is the nature of physicists to get on the track of inexplicable phenomena by as accurate measurements as possible. And this they do also when time is concerned: They build clocks and watches which are unbelievably precise. Being fast or slow (or even standing still) is an unknown state for these clocks - they simply run, and thoroughly count the seconds. Time can thus be measured. So far so good; but even the best clock or watch does not reveal why there is time. It only shows that time exists and elapses.