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Comedy Stories

The Physics Professor and the Latte

Read by Russell Norman


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It wasn’t like Dr. Stevens to spend $4.38 for coffee.

Not coffee—a latte. A latte was essentially a fancy espresso with a thin layer of foamed milk. Either way, $4.38 was an egregious amount of money to spend on a beverage for a young professor with crushing student loans. A young professor who would have been just as happy sipping the dregs from the burnt coffee pot in the faculty lounge. A young professor who wasn’t sure about his students’ abilities, whether they would put in the hard work and dedication necessary to understand the beauty of physics.

$4.38 for coffee. Did he need a decorative swirl to justify the expense of a latte?

He thought about the formulas for oscillations and mechanical waves that made the coffee swirls possible. This passed the time while he checked his watch and waited.

Perhaps he should order his coffee now?

According to the laws of thermodynamics, the coffee would cool too quickly. Of course, this was relative to how much energy would be given off by the styrofoam cup compared to the time it would take the coffee to lose its energy. He mentally drew up the equations.

Dr. Stevens waited outside the coffee shop for the one friend whom he had made at the university since joining the faculty. She taught in the humanities department.

He looked at his watch again. From the sidewalk, he watched cars start and stop at random intervals, mentally running through a calculus proof of centripetal acceleration.

“Sorry I’m late,” she repeated, more loudly.

“Oh, I didn’t see you,” he smiled sheepishly. She’d startled him.

“This coffee shop is fun. You’ll like it!” she beamed. She liked everything, like most humanities professors. The humanities building brimmed with effervescent idealists, all on the cusp of discovering revelations about the human condition. Its lobbies with overstuffed couches with festive throw pillows and “contemplating chairs” invited minds to ruminate.

As for the physics building? The gray slab had the worst lighting on campus, tacitly alerting future engineering students that they’d sold their souls for endless physics and calculus courses.

Dr. Stevens’ new friend opened the door to the coffee shop for both of them.

“See the specials on the chalkboard? Every month the coffee shop picks a theme. Since October is cuffing season—”

“Excuse me. Cuffing season?” Dr. Stevens inquired.

“Every October. When there’s a chill in the air, an energy? You haven’t noticed students pairing off, sometimes right in the hallway? It’s the time of year to find a mate to cozy up with for the winter months,” she laughed, a sound as melodious as windchimes. He knew the sound of her laugh was simply vibrations in the air traveling in longitudinal waves.

Yet, still.

“Oh, cuffing season, I see,” Dr. Stevens said.

“So there are eight special lattes,” she explained. “They are all based on the eight types of love, according to the Greeks.”

“I didn’t think I’d need a humanities professor to order a cup of coffee,” Dr. Stevens said seriously, but she laughed at his wit.

“There’s Autumnal Agape with cinnamon and vanilla. Agape is unconditional love,” she said.

“Like a mother’s love?”

“More like Jesus,” she replied.

“That seems like a bridge too far. How about the 911 Mania with Irish crème? That sounds good,” he suggested.

“Mania means obsessive love. It’ll get you a restraining order.”

“I’ll pass on that one,” he said. They both looked at each other and nodded in mutual agreement.

“Let’s see. How about Pint of Pragma with toffee and buttered rum?”

“It sounds like old people smell,” he replied, knowing that quantum physics purported that smell depended on the shapes of molecules, not age.

“Makes sense that you’d feel that way as pragma is love that has matured over time. It’s like watching your grandparents hold hands, assuming they are still married,” she added quickly.

“They’re dead, so let’s pass on the pragma.”

“Next one. Let’s see,” she squinted. Her nose scrunched up in an adorable way, a way that Dr. Stevens stared at for a bit too long. “Steaming Storge with hazelnut? Fabulous Philia with raspberry? Both have heavy friendship connotations.”

“Friendship is all right,” he wavered a bit.

“Ah! Peppermint Philautia, the love of self. Perfect for you!” she beamed.

“Do I come across that arrogant?” He was stung.

“No,” she laughed her windchime laugh. “Philautia is self care, self-compassion. It’s a healthy love.”

I’ve had years of self care, Dr. Stevens thought. Years in the lab with Michelson and Morley’s luminiferous ether experiment and Minkowski’s spacetime and the Lorentz transformation. No where in Einstein’s velocity addition did anyone mention anything about cuffing season.

“You could try Elderberry Eros,” she looked at him slyly.

“Eros—”

“Hot unchecked passion. Perfectly fine for a lost weekend in Vegas. The type of love that burns hot and bright, yet burns out fast. The Greeks were actually afraid of Eros, afraid of losing control,” she explained.

Eros is basically combustion, Dr. Stevens surmised. A chemical reaction between substances. There would be a generation of heat and light in the form of flame.

“I’m not sure what elderberry tastes like, so I’m not going to risk my $4.38,” he said flatly. She again thought he was joking and laughed, putting her hand on his arm. It felt nice there.

“Last one. Red Licorice Ludus.”

“I love red licorice!” he exclaimed, pulling out his wallet. “What exactly is ludus? Can I get arrested for it?”

“Ludus is the Greeks’ playful form of love. It’s a crush. The starting point for young lovers,” she said.

“That is the perfect cup of coffee for cuffing season,” he thought, calculating how cozy it would be to cuddle up with her.

With that, Dr. Stevens paid $8.76 for two Red Licorice Ludus Lattes, and even tossed the extra $1.24 in the tip jar on the way out of the coffee shop with the humanities professor.

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