Falling to the moon, with math


Can we talk about antigravity?

I have a few ideas about antigravity that are less than half-baked, more like charred on the outside and raw on the inside. I often wonder: if you could somehow block the Earth’s attraction on an Earthbound object, but keep its momentum from when it was still under the Earth’s gravitational influence, could/would that object then fall to the moon? And if it could/would, how quickly would it drop?

Let’s take a look. We’ll treat the Earth and moon as being not in motion relative to each other, which I acknowledge is complete baloney already. But all I actually want to know is the speed at which the object “takes off” from the Earth’s surface. So I used this formula:

equation that reads v=sqrt((2GMd)/r^2)

Which reads, the velocity equals the square root of: (2 times the gravitational constant times the mass of the moon times the distance fallen) divided by the altitude of the object squared. Or, v=sqrt((2GMd)/r^2).

Let’s throw some numbers at this. No, wait, let’s not. The upshot is that an object, be it a dog or a banana or an outhouse, if freed from the Earth’s gravity, would fall to the Moon very slowly at first. Initial speed would be around .04 meters/second, or around 1.5 inches per second. After two minutes and change the object would be only 10 feet off the ground.

An impossible situation, of course, but that’s why I’m writing FANTASY. So I threw all these ideas into the second Mabel Brightwing story, “From the Earth to the Zoo”. Disaster ensues.

Secret Origins of Dog Food


When did commercial dog food come to be? When did the family pooches get the upgrade from bones and potato peelings to delicious canned horse meat? This question arose when I wanted a character to bring up* dog food in “From the Earth to the Zoo.” But I came to wonder if dog food even existed in the mid-1930s, when the story is set.

Most of what I learned comes from this article at Neatorama, which is a reprint of a 1988 article in Uncle John’s Unstoppable Bathroom Reader. I challenge you to find a more reputable source.

The short answer is: Yes. Dog biscuits came first, in 1860. According to the story, an electrician named James Spratt saw some dogs in the port of London greedily munching up old ship’s biscuit, a mixture of flour, water and salt that was a staple for sailors during their long sea voyages. Ship’s biscuit was also called hard tack, which tells you just how appetizing it is. Spratt added vegetables and beef blood to the recipe, and thus the first dog food was healthier and probably more appetizing than what the poor sailors had to choke down.

Canned dog food came in 1922 in the form of Ken-L-Ration, and was primarily horse meat. The story of pet food’s growth in popularity is a story of advertising creating a need. In the 1960s, pet food industry lobbying groups (have you ever met a pet food lobbyist? Me neither.) cooked up a campaign to convince consumers that feeding dogs anything except commercial dog food was a bad idea. Their message: Table scraps kill.

*Bring up in conversation, not upchuck.

Did they say that in the 1930s?

My love affair with Google’s Ngram viewer began when I was drafting “The Apprentice’s Magician” and threw down the phrase “exit strategy.” Immediately I stopped, doubting that the phrase was used in the 1930s. But how to find out?

Happily there’s a tool that helps: Google’s Ngram Viewer. The viewer generates graphs of the frequency of words in the texts that comprise Google Books over time. So punch in “pizza” and here’s what you get:


The viewer accounts for the fact that many more books have been published in recent decades, and normalizes the results by the number of books published each year. Which means the results reflect how popular or not a word or phrase was at a certain time, not simply how often it was printed.

But what about more everyday terms? In the mid-1930s was it more common to say pants or trousers, for example? I feel like trousers might have been the thing, but I don’t know. The Ngram viewer can chart multiple words or phrases together for comparison. Because the Mabel Brightwing series is set in the mid-1930s in New York, I narrowed the search parameters to 1900-1950, and only American English.


Ah ha, throughout the early 20th Century, trousers led pants. There’s an interesting dip in both terms starting around 1945. Why? This is where I get pulled down the rabbit hole. Maybe jeans started to take over? Let’s add that, pull out to the whole century, and see what we get.


Well, there’s still no obvious explanation for the mysterious reluctance to talk about pants, trousers, or leg wear in any form from the late ’40s to the late ’60s, but we can see that right around 1969 pants took over from trousers, with jeans also on the rise.

The viewer can also chart phrases (and a lot more—see the About page for all the mathy-lingustic details). At one point in “The Flight of the TKTK” I had a character say “four-legged friend,” but I became seized with uncertainty. Did Americans say that in 1936? How much?


Turns out they did, but very rarely. I noodled around for alternatives, and hit upon the sexist “man’s best friend.” Let’s take a look:


Yup, that unfortunate phrase appeared about ten times more often in the early 20th, and charged up even more starting around 1935. I went with it because the character who utters it is a product of his times, and an unenlightened product at that.

So back to “exit strategy,” were my instincts right? They certainly were:


It strikes me that a talented programmer could use the Ngram viewer’s database to create an Anachronism Detector. Feed it a piece of historical fiction, give it a year or date range, and the program could chew through the document and highlight words and phrases that don’t belong. Seems like a good project for some Googler’s 20% time, although that itself may be a myth. This article sheds a little light there.

Game of Languages, or, How to Create a Language in Two Minutes


When I was 12 I wanted to compile a dictionary of all the made-up alien words I could find. I drew on Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels, C. S. Lewis’s Space trilogy, Jack Vance, and others. I thought I could tackle Tolkien, but the complexity of his work was more than my pre-adolescent brain could manage. I tried, but even the alphabets were different! My attention wandered, and the project lapsed.

My interest in invented languages remains, though I’m only a dabbler. I can spit out a greeting in four Star Trek tongues (literally, in the case of Klingon), and I once spent a happy morning in a seminar learning conversational Na’vi from Dr. Paul Frommer, the language’s inventor.

When I started to write about magical beings from other dimensions and whatnot, I wanted them to have their own languages, of course. And I didn’t want to lean into the standard fantasy languages of incantation: Latin, Sanskrit, etc.

I asked myself: Shall I make up entire, functional languages?

God no, is my answer. I haven’t the skill or the time. More to the point, I would get pulled deep, deep into the project and emerge ten years from now with a beard down to my knees and a handful of words coupled to some iffy grammar rules.

Six Invented Languages Before Breakfast

But there’s a compromise between a fully-formed tongue and gibberish, and that is language games.

We’ve all played language games. They’re simple changes to a natural language that result in something that sounds quite exotic if you don’t know the rules. Pig Latin is a common language game among English speakers. The rule of Pig Latin is: move the first letter to the end of the word and add -ay- to the end. Igpay Atinlay.

Language games are meant to obfuscate, and allow people (usually kids) to have secret conversations and take delight in befuddling listeners. They have been used in certain trades to allow private conversations in front of customers. They are found worldwide.

One of my favorites is Ubbi Dubbi, which I learned from watching the PBS kid’s show Zoom. Ubbi Dubbi inserts -ub- before each vowel in a syllable. I recently discovered that my sisters and I speak a variant Ubbi Dubbi for some reason. Our dialect inserts the vowel to come plus -b-. So in standard Ubbi Dubbi, cat is cubat. In ours it’s cabat. I’m sure you’re glad that’s cleared up.

French Elvish, or Frelvish

Why not create some language games to be the magical tongues? The choice of rules greatly influences the sound of the language, giving it an aural character that suits the culture and attitude of the speaker. Take Louchébem, which comes from French. The rules are: move the first consonant to the end of the word, add -em- to the end, and put -l- at the beginning. So cat becomes latcem. String a few words together and the spoken result has a certain soft melody. Lrytem litem lourselfyem. Suitable for some gentle, peaceful beings perhaps.

Louchébem: Move the first consonant to the end of the word, add -em-, and put -l- at the beginning. (There are variants that use other suffixes.)

Horse Language

Want a harsh, aggressive tongue? Kinabayo, or horse language, is a game of Cebuano, spoken in the Philippines. In it, you replace every vowel with (the vowel) + -g- + (the vowel) + -d- + (the vowel). So cat becomes cagadat. The result is thought to sound like a horse galloping. Whagadat dogodo yougoudou thigidink? We could rough it up even more by choosing harder consonants to insert such as -k- and -t-. Cakatat. Dokotog.

Kinabayo: replace every vowel with (the vowel) + -g- + (the vowel) + -d- + (the vowel)

The potential flaw in my plan is that language games work best spoken aloud. If you don’t know a language game’s rules, it can be quite difficult to decipher. In print, the game soon becomes clear. But I want that, actually. I want readers to be in on the game. I want to create magical languages that can be mastered after 30 minutes of practice.

To learn more about language games, see this extensive list and bibliography at linguist.org.

Back To The Real Thing

For more on genuine invented languages see:

Image: High Valyrian letter from A Game of Thrones. Language created by David Peterson.