No detail visible, but very bright and very colorful yellow-orange glow, standing out nicely over the city glow. (We didn't go that far out.) We also saw Orion, Casseiopeia, the Pleiades, the new moon in the old moon's arms (just rising) and two shooting stars.
It led me to thinking about Tycho Brahe, and his sister Sophia, and their amazing relationship with Mars. The twenty years of impeccable data they generated--without optical instruments (our three-pound, fifty-year-old birder's binoculars far outstripping anything Brahe had access to), with only armillary spheres and quadrants and so forth--which later led Brahe's student Kepler to his amazing discoveries about what orbited what. Brahe's usually remembered these days for opposing Copernicus' view of a heliocentric system: what's forgotten in this modern day is that the experimental data then available (of which the best and most meticulous was Brahe's) proved Copernicus' theories wrong.
As, in fact, they were: Copernicus was still trapped in the medieval ideology of spheres and vaults in heaven, immutable and unchangeable, and he was searching for a solution involving perfect solids and perfect spheres.
Meanwhile, Brahe's early work, involving the observance of a comet and a nova--Die Stella Nova, first of that name--had proven the crystal-sphere theory flawed. Brahe's disapproval of the Copernican model was not, as is often taught today, based on Brahe's refusal to release medieval ideology, but the fact that Copernicus' theories contradicted observed data, confirmed by some rather ingenious experiments. In other words, Brahe was operating on what we moderns would refer to as the scientific method, and Copernicus was not.
Brahe's Mars data, bequeathed to Kepler after Brahe's untimely death, led Kepler to his proof that the heliocentric theory had been correct after all, although not in the Copernican model. Brahe's data, his revelation about the nova and the comet that proved the mutability of heaven, and his insistence that the universe did not mock that data; Copernicus' heliocentric model--heavily modified to conform to Brahe's data; and Kepler's painstaking mathematics--some thousand pages of hand-figured calculations:
The modern era. The light of reason. The dawn of science and all her gifts and all her terrors.
And we owe it all to a man and a woman, brother and sister, hunched over an inadequate quadrant on a cold balcony in a colder country for twenty years of their lives four hundred years ago.
And to Mars, and his bizarre, beautiful, Copernically inexplicable retrograde motion against the constant pattern of the stars.
For a moment, in that desert, it was the sixteenth century, and I rather felt the urge to lean over and jostle the elbows of Tyge and Sophie so they could turn and see what it was I saw.
And then a car drove past with its headlights on, and we came home, over the mountain to Las Vegas, spread out like an enormous lurid irridescent tattoo across the belly of the desert and the night.
And that's why I write science fiction. Dammit.