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Additional info for National Geographic [FR], Issue 186 (March 2015)
The Church, still clinging to the old idea of the Earth at the center of the universe, could make Galileo recant, but it could not erase the new thinking. By the time Mercator was born, the printing press had made books readily available across Europe, but the language of religion and intellectual debate was the same as it had been in the days of the medieval copyists toiling over manuscripts in the monasteries. Not just the Bible but also scientific, medical, and philosophical texts were written in Latin.
His observations of flotsam, the behavior of birds and fishes, and the seaweed in the Sargasso Sea all seemed to indicate that the ship was coming close to land, but the helmsman failed to find bottom first with one plumb line, then with two tied together. The flotilla was still in deep water, far out at sea. Navigation devices were notoriously untrustworthy, and the traditional astrolabe with which Columbus tried to take sightings of the Sun above the horizon was almost impossible to use accurately on the pitching and tossing deck of a ship.
Patrick Roberts of London similarly helped me with a number of French documents, and the late Dr, Dik ter Haar of Magdalen College, Oxford, welcomed me into his home and patiently guided me through many pages of Flemish. Any mistakes are mine; to all of them, my thanks. In London and Oxford, the staffs of the British Library, the London Library, and the Bodleian Library were unfailingly helpful. Peter Barber, of the British Library's Maps Department, was particularly generous with his time in discussing Mercator's map of Britain with me.