When you look up at the night sky, each little pinprick of light that is hitting your eyes left its home star light-years ago. You might already know this—it’s a standard fact of star gazing. But really understanding what that means can be hard.
Star Date, a project borne of the recent American Museum of Natural History hackathon, tries to tackle that abstraction by offering a snapshot of what was happening in the world when that light began traveling toward Earth. Roll over a star and you’ll get the New York Times headline that corresponds to how long ago that light left. “It's like being in outer space and receiving the latest edition of The New York Times and looking at history in the present,” Charlye Tran, one of the developers on the project, wrote on the project’s Github page.
A star that’s 29.22 light-years away sends you to a story from August 2nd, 1985. The headline is BRIEFING; Wait a Wowate, and it goes on to say:
On the questionable theory that what Washington needs is one more acronym, R. James Woolsey, former Under Secretary of the Navy, has produced a new unit for measuring time: the Wowate. The initials stand for ''World War II equivalent,'' and one Wowate is equal to the time between Pearl Harbor and the Japanese surrender, or three years and eight months.
Another star, 12.12 light years away, sends you a story from 2002 about how American gun companies were gaining immunity from lawsuits. A star 27.01 light years away reminds us of a landmark case in immigration. A star 28.24 light years away brings up a familiar name: a story of New York Governor Mario Cuomo—father of Andrew Cuomo, the current governor of New York—exchanging quips during a fundraising event.
Star Date doesn’t have all the stars—just the 100 closest to our sun. Among those, are mainly stars whose light left in the last 35 years. And the visualization page doesn’t have a key on it (the colors and sizes of each star mean something). But the ability to tie something so far away—stars that are 210 billion miles away from us—to something far more tangible.
Star Date wasn’t the only thing to come out of the AMNH hackathon to try to tackle that concept. Another project, called History in Space, does the same. It provides a timeline users can scroll through to go back in time and see world events that coincide with starlight. This version is more curated—the developers here picked which world events they thought best summed up that year. Alpha Centauri is paired with the Eyjafjallajokull eruption in Iceland and the 2010 World Cup. Sirius A—8.5 light-years from earth—is tagged to the origin of Twitter. Vega—the first star aside from our sun to be photographed—is coupled with the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall.
Both of these projects attempt to connect us to just how far away these stars are by using things we may remember. But as we move past the nearest stars, that method breaks down. The galaxy M87 is 53 million light-years away from Earth. Which means the light we’re seeing from it began its journey as the Himalayas were forming. The universe remains vast and difficult to comprehend.