VII: Lead

The special permanence of a big old metal.

VII: Lead
Lead type, the old manner of setting text on the press. Photo by 4motions Werbeagentur / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is septidi, the 27th of Nivôse, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate le plomb, a heavy metal that poisons minds.

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We've all seen viral images that make fun of bad kerning, in which the space between letters is too small or too big and ends up making confusing phrases, but what about the other space, the one between lines? This is called "leading" (rhymes with "sledding," not "bleeding"), although the term has gradually faded from use thanks to Microsoft Word dumbing it down as "single spacing" and "double spacing." The old word derives from the element lead, which was used to make the blocks (of "slugs") of letters in a hand-typeset printing press. Between each tray (line) of letters, a blank lead strip would be placed that was typically 15% to 20% of the font's height. If you decide to fine-tune your paragraph spacing in Word, you'll still find the term there.

If tin is the most popular kid in school, lead is tin's older brother whose popularity was so great, it still echoes years later. The two are definitely brothers on the periodic table, and are so similar that many languages didn't even bother developing different words for them, even though they were well aware of the difference. Romans called lead "black lead" and tin "bright lead." The Czech word for lead is the exact same as the Russian word for tin, so the pan-Slavic language must not have bothered picking a side.

But while tin was scarce and valuable, lead was plentiful and common (and, even the ancients knew, poisonous). Bring almost any rock to a hot point and the lead will melt out. If lead and tin are so similar, why the extreme difference in prevalence, especially in favor of lead, which, as the heavier element, should theoretically be much rarer?

The answer is a strange quirk of mathematics that makes lead the atomic graveyard. Everything bigger than lead is doomed to eventually become lead.

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