The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the hypothalamus is remarkable. Despite numbering only about 10,000 neurons on each side of the third ventricle, the SCN is our principal circadian clock, directing the daily cycles of behaviour and physiology that set the tempo of our lives. When this nucleus is isolated in organotypic culture, its autonomous timing mechanism can persist indefinitely, with precision and robustness. The discovery of the cell-autonomous transcriptional and post-translational feedback loops that drive circadian activity in the SCN provided a powerful exemplar of the genetic specification of complex mammalian behaviours. However, the analysis of circadian time-keeping is moving beyond single cells. Technical and conceptual advances, including intersectional genetics, multidimensional imaging and network theory, are beginning to uncover the circuit-level mechanisms and emergent properties that make the SCN a uniquely precise and robust clock. However, much remains unknown about the SCN, not least the intrinsic properties of SCN neurons, its circuit topology and the neuronal computations that these circuits support. Moreover, the convention that the SCN is a neuronal clock has been overturned by the discovery that astrocytes are an integral part of the timepiece. As a test bed for examining the relationships between genes, cells and circuits in sculpting complex behaviours, the SCN continues to offer powerful lessons and opportunities for contemporary neuroscience.