The phrases deep space, zero gravity and computer virus may all sound like they originated in science but, according to the Hugo prize-winning author Jeff Prucher, they were first used by science fiction writers.
The first known use of the term "zero gravity" - a defining feature of life in outer space - is from Jack Binder in 1938, said Prucher. "Starting at the zero-gravity of earth's core, accumulative acceleration is easily built up in a four-thousand-mile tube," Binder, who achieved greater fame for his work as an artist, wrote in a short story over 70 years ago. Arthur C Clarke coined the phrase "zero-g" in Islands in the Sky, Prucher added. This 1952 novel by the prolific Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, sees a man wins a trip to a space station 500 miles from earth.
Deep space, said Prucher, appears to have been coined by EE "Doc" Smith, a chemical engineer who became the father of the space opera genre, in 1934. "Bradley swore a mighty deep-space oath and braced himself against certain annihilation," wrote Smith in his novel Triplanetary. "One of the other defining features of outer space is its essential emptiness. In science fiction, this phrase most commonly refers to a region of empty space between stars or that is remote from the home world," said Prucher. "The more common use in the sciences refers to the region of space outside of the Earth's atmosphere."
The "fertile mind" of EE Smith also gave us the concept of a pressure suit, Prucher went on, "a suit that maintains a stable pressure around its occupant; useful in both space exploration and high-altitude flights". Curiously, the author said, Smith's pressure suits were furred, "an innovation not, alas, replicated by NASA".
Gas giant, said Prucher, referring to a large planet such as Jupiter which is composed mainly of gaseous material, was first used by James Blish in the short story Solar Plexus. "A quick glance over the boards revealed that there was a magnetic field of some strength near by, one that didn't belong to the invisible gas giant revolving half a million miles away," wrote Blish.
"The odd thing about it is that it was first used in a reprint of the story [in 1952], 11 years after the story was first published," said Prucher. "Whether this is because Blish conceived of the term in the intervening years or read it somewhere else, or whether it was in the original manuscript and got edited out is impossible to say at this point."
Spaceships started using ion drives, which move the craft forwards by emitting charged particles in the opposite direction to travel, in the 1970s, but the term is first thought to have been used in Jack Williamson's The Equalizer in 1947, said Prucher. "It had its own ion drive, a regular crew of six, and plenty of additional space for our party," runs Williamson's novel.
The verbal analogy between biological viruses and self-replicating computer programmes was first made by Dave Gerrold in his 1972 story When Harlie Was One, about a computer (the acronym stands for Human Analog Robot Life Input Equivalents) which believes it is human.
Prucher, a freelance lexicographer who won best related book at last year's Hugos for his dictionary of science fiction Brave New Words, picked out the phrases in an article for Oxford University Press. He ran into some bother over his crediting of the term genetic engineering to Jack Williamson's 1941 novel Dragon Island with one critic pointing out that Williamson has admitted that "some scientist beat me by a couple of years". "Thanks for pointing that out," Prucher replied to his critic. "Add it to the list of Words You Might Think Came from Science Fiction but Actually Came from Science."
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