Space is incomprehensibly vast. When you look up at the stars, the light coming from them was actually emitted decades or even centuries ago, as it takes light a long time to cover the vast distance between star systems.
This is a well-known fact, but one that's still hard to grasp. So a group of developers at recent hackathon hosted by the American Museum of Natural History came up with an ingenious way to drive this point home.
For each of the 100 stars closest to the sun, their project Star Date provides the headline of a New York Times article that was published when the light now reaching us was emitted:
When light left the red dwarf Lalande 46650, for instance, the OJ Simpson trial was entering its fifth month. When it left Groombridge 1830, a star in the Ursa Major constellation, the EPA was fining Union Carbide $3.9 million in 1985. Take a look at the Star Date page for many other examples.
This context really puts into perspective how brief human history is, compared to the immensity of just our region of the Milky Way galaxy. Back when Reagan was president and the Berlin Wall was erect, light that's now reaching us from the closest stars was just getting on its way.
Light from the vast majority of stars, meanwhile, is much, much older. When you look up at the more distant (but still quite visible) Andromeda galaxy, the light you see was emitted 2.54 million years ago — before humans had fully evolved into our modern anatomical state.
Hat tip to Rose Eveleth at the Atlantic for the very cool find.