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Interview: Norman Birnbach on “It’s All Relative at the Space-Time Cafe”

– What was the inspiration for “It’s All Relative at the Space-Time Cafe?”

I’ve always been interested in physics but I wrote the first draft so long ago that I can’t remember what made me think of writing a speculative fiction mashup that’s part love story, part mystery, and full of jokes. I do know I came up with the idea before I found the quote from Einstein that serves as the epigraph — “Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love. How on earth can you explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?” — which was lucky because I do use physics to tell a love story. To make it fun, I decided to base all but one character on real physicists, making them writers and performance artists. (Later on, I turned some into detectives and CSI techs.) So Einstein is a writer who has published a number of short stories and a major novel, The Special Theory of Relativity. In the Space-Time Cafe world, the characters use terms associated with the real scientists but are oblivious to the actual physics. For example, commenting on Niels Bohr and Jenny, the love interests at the center of the story, Currie says she knew they were in love because, “You can see it on your faces. Both of you are glowing from it.” At some point, I put Space-Time Cafe aside to write humor articles that have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other publications but I kept coming back to this story because it always made me laugh.


– What kind of research did you do for this story?

I can’t call myself a true physics geek because I only took one physics course in college.  It was a physics-for-poets type that required no math, which is a good thing for me. (And I don’t know why they said it was just for poets – we wrote papers for the class, not poems.)  But the professor, a teacher I liked named Schick, taught all the concepts. What especially fascinated me was the science around the origins of the universe.  I remember writing a long paper for Professor Schick about cosmology that included many of the physicists I used in the story — perhaps that was part of the inspiration for it.  To write the story, I read through a shelf of physics books because it was important to me that the jokes are accurate.


– How many physics jokes were you able to pack into this story?

I don’t have an exact count because — and I’m not proud of this — I’m not good in math.  My goal was to load up as many jokes and references as possible but they had to serve the love story. I especially didn’t want to appeal only to Ph.D. candidates since that would exclude me, and besides, I was concerned that they would write angry critiques that I wouldn’t understand. There are a lot of one-liners that don’t require any knowledge of physics because so many everyday words also have a scientific meaning that we overlook.  For example, “When our circle of friends accidentally discovered the Space-Time Café, only Newton found it disagreeable. Everyone else liked it because of its atmosphere: we went to the Space-Time not just for its drinks (which were out of this world) but because we could postulate solutions to our problems there.” Others require that you’ve at least heard of the scientists and only a couple are a bit subtle. And nothing that requires complicated equations or formulas.


– What are you working on now?

I don’t always know what’s next, which has nothing to do with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. I work on several different things at any time. One is a follow-up of sorts, principally because I like the Space-Time gang but the challenge is not to repeat jokes. (It might go faster if I could find another paper from Professor Schick’s class.) In the meantime, I’m working on other speculative fiction, some humorous and some serious, as well as continuing to write humor articles.

“It’s All Relative at the Space-Time Cafe” appears in the November/December 2015 issue of F&SF.  You can buy it here:

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