The String Kings

By Sean Carroll | December 12, 2006 7:12 am

Who says our commenters are anything less than perfectly awesome? In the course of reading Alejandro Satz’s review of Lee Smolin’s book, I came across a link to a comment on one of Clifford’s old posts. An elaborate review of a film that is completely imaginary, but demands to be made; it’s brilliant, and somehow I don’t think it got the attention it deserved when originally posted. It’s by “Steve,” but I don’t know anything more specific — if the real Steve would like to step forward, I’d be happy to give credit where it’s due!


The “String Kings”, Scorsese’s latest, is a highly violent but satisfying gangster movie, certainly on a par with Goodfellas or the Godfather trilogy, and does give the viewer insights into the raw and violent world of fundamental string theory research. The film also boasts a first-rate Hollywood cast: Joe Pesci as Michael “Mo “Green; Burt Young as John Schwarz; Antonio Banderas as the hot-bloodied Juan Maldacena, who is as fast with a flicknife as he is with an ADS duality; Leonardo deCaprio as Lubos “The Kid” Motl; Robert de Niro as Tom Banks; Harvey Keitel as Joe “the (quantum) Mechanic” Polchinski, Michael Douglas as Michael Douglas; Amanda Peet as Amanda Peet, Terrence Stamp as Lenny Susskind, Jackie Chan as Michio Kaku, Samuel L Jackson as Clifford V. Johnson and Eugene Levy as “Boss of Bosses” Ed Witten. The film is characterised by some extreme and gratuitous violence and is not for the mathematically squeamish, but this is to be expected considering the subject matter.

In the film, Lubos Motl becomes involved with the string mafia at a young age. As he says in the film, “I always wanted to become a string theorist”. As an undergraduate he idolises the string theory gangsters in the US and eagerly studies every page of GSW, Vols. I and II. Upon graduating, the local Syracuse mob captain Tom Banks sees his potential and helps cultivate the boy’s developing criminal string career, offering him a postgraduate position. In graduate school Lubos is arrested by campus police for intimidating researchers in medicine, biology, engineering, arts and humanities into citing string preprints in their work. He admits nothing and is lauded by his superiors as a “stand-up guy”. Upon getting his Phd he moves to Harvard and gets to rub shoulders with some of the “made guys” within the east-coast string underworld. Ruthless and violent and described as “perturbatively unstable” he quickly establishes his reputation. From his Harvard base he helps the mob take over local bars, clubs, businesses, casinos, hotels, libraries, graduate schools and journal editorial boards. They run a sleazy escort agency called “Matrix Models”. The also conspire to channel, siphon and launder millions of dollars worth of grant money from the government. However, at this time the FBI also begin to keep a close watch…

Perhaps the most violent scenes in the film follow when “Boss of Bosses” Ed Witten, from a huge luxury mansion in Princeton NJ, calmly gives the order for a long list of people to be “taken out” (spoiler alert). In a chilling sequence, the film repeatedly cuts between the increasingly violent mob hits and Ed giving a seminar on the twistor space structure of 1-loop amplitudes in gauge theory. Lee Smolin is seen shot multiple times in the back as he writes LQG constraint equations on a blackboard. There is a scene showing work on an extension of the New Jersey turnpike, involving string henchmen (disguised with hard hats and overalls) a large cement truck and Peter Woit. Carlo Rovelli is kidnapped and strapped to a chair while the Kid goes through his quantum gravity monologue page by page with seething criticism before finally bashing his head in with the hardback edition. Another LQG theorist gets his dimensions compactified in a car crusher. These violent scenes generally stay with you long after the film is finished and have an unsettling effect.

The film also cuts to the west-coast string operation where Stanford mobsters are experimenting with hard drugs. With on-location filming at the ITP (now the Kavli Institute) we see Polchinski (Keitel) and Johnson (Samuel Jackson) working on a lecture series, unfortunately with awful dumbed-down dialogue from Jackson:”This D-brane primers gonna kick serious ass mutha”. However, back east things go awry and the kid ends up in jail replete with orange jump suit taking the rap for his superiors, following an FBI sting (string?)operation. But he starts to run an operation from his cell smuggling in drugs and arxiv preprints for his fellow inmates.

However, the film badly degenerates into 70s and 80s actioner kitch near the end when the east-coast string bosses decide to take over Kaku’s NY pop science, popular book, tv and radio operation, thus stopping him making string theory understandable to “the stupid people”. It turns out though that Kaku who has 4 black belts can shatter a stack of D-branes with a single karate blow, and takes on the string mob, joined by fellow populariser Brian Greene played by Steven Seagal. However, some of the mob back west are not hapy including boss John Schwarz who says, “Kaku was writing string theory papers when some of you guys were struggling with high-school algebra”. What follows is an all-out turf war in NY’s China Town, with a badly dubbed Kaku (even though being Japanese), a sinewy, oiled lean, mean fighting machine…every muscle tensed ready to explode with lightening reflexes, taking out the string mob one by one in a scene shamelessly ripped off from the end of “Enter the Dragon.”

Overall, String Kings will appeal to fans fo the gangster genre and despite the ending will probably still become a Scorsese classic.

  • Moshe

    Looks like a real Scorsese movie: the plot may be underdeveloped, but what wonderful characters…and every year there is the promise of another sequel.

  • Belizean

    LOL! Brilliant!

  • wolfgang

    I dont know, I think String Kings should be a mobster comedy a la “Analyze This!”

  • Adam S

    For a while I’ve wanted to make a movie called “The Bourn Aproximation”

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  • Kuas

    I think Woit should be played by Kevin Costner in a reprise of his Elliot Ness role in the Untouchables.

    If you’ve seen A History of Violence, you’ll understand why Daniel Friedan should be played by Viggo Mortenson.

  • Plato

    I think you deleted the same guy Sean where Elliot’s post is now?

    But yea I think it’s fun too that such a story line can make fun of the whole situation, all the while the continued debate is still going on. Keeps humour in us in in the most strenuous times.

    If I derail the post by my second comment about firefox you can delete this.

    Something is wrong with the IE presentation of Cosmic variance page sometimes? On firefox you look fine.

    Oh Firefox2 download on here has some good add ons which even Moshe recognizes in developing our posts on what ever blog.

    Do the download of Firefox first, then the add on. There’s dictionary as well.

    Back to regular programming:)

  • Thomas Larsson

    No experimentalists in the cast?

    Oops. Sorry, wrong movie.

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  • Doug Hanley

    Well, in the real world, there is at least one Caltech string theorist in federal prison. That’s a start.

  • Blake Stacey

    Rumor has it the deleted scenes to be included on the forthcoming DVD feature Maggie Gyllenhaal as muckracking science journalist Jennifer Ouellette and John Turturro as the mysterious Dr. Baez, ordering one hit each week from his lair in Shanghai.

  • Q9

    lol! -Possibly one of the best conspiracy theories yet
    Lubos must be feeling truly elated today & everyday
    The more people talk about him the more strings he pulls
    I’m certain he would be more than happy to play the puppet master or superstring in that “Matrix Models” Agency – and who wouldn’t. lol!
    Could Lubos possibly be the man who singlehadely behind the scenes, manipulated the ‘numbers’ in the elections to secure son of Bush got a second term in office and ensure String Theory remains well funded by the government – after all private enterprise has little use for strings you cannot sell for tax free profit.

    All publicity is good publicity, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

  • Chris Oakley

    This is probably for String Kings, part 2, but you could then have The Kid hoping to be admitted to the Princeton inner circle but finding that he is shunned, with Robert Langlands (Rutger Hauer) being lionised instead. The Kid, resentful that Langlands has done nothing to fight the String Theory corner, sets up his own rival “institute” that soon comes into conflict with the IAS …

  • Chris Oakley

    (After he gets out of jail, of course).

  • Cynthia

    “Steve,” I must say, your script is destined for the silver screen! Nevertheless, as a finishing touch, the script ought to thoroughly undergo a fine-tuning by the Head Honchos of Anthropics: Lenny and Nima.

    Come to think of it though, to track down these two Honchos of Anthropics, you might have to probe the carbon-free depths, not to mention, the oxygen-free depths of the Landscape. Hence, as you trek through the countless array of bubble universes, remember to bring plenty of food, water, and shelter—above all else—bring a decompression chamber. After all, bubbles are simply murder on brain cells.;)

  • Arun M

    :-). I certainly would watch the movie if it is made.

  • stevem

    lol. Yes, I wrote that one. I was posting as “steve” back then but adopted “stevem” since there was another “steve” posting. I kept hearing the term “string mafia” so it was born from that. When Clifford suggested string-themed movie ideas I then came up with this. I am not “anti-string” and no offence was intended to any of the names involved; it was just meant as a bit of silly humour. String theory is certainly full of colourful characters so it was quite easy to parody. I would probably rename is “Stringfellas” now though. One line there was meant to be “Stanford mobsters have been experimenting with flux compactifications and hard drugs”. As regards the racial stereotyping, the joke was meant to be that it is Hollywood that tends to do that. So in this type of film there was no choice but to make Clifford a gun-toting gangsta badass and Kaku a Kung Fu fighting machine:)

  • Elliot

    As the author of a serious screenplay about the cosmological implications of string/M theory, I am deeply offended at the flippant treatment of this subject 😉 😉


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  • PK
  • Alejandro

    Thanks for the link, Sean! I laughed so hard the first time I saw this comment that I still remembered it more than a year later. I’m glad to see it getting the deserved recognition at last. Congratulations to stevem!

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    I think this one has the stuff to be a big Broadway musical.

  • Elliot

    Would the musical include “Stringtime for Hitler” ?

  • JoAnne

    I like the musical idea! I can just hear a sub-plot love-tune about a Fling with Strings in Spring…

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  • Jack of Physics

    Great movie concept, I couldn’t wait until it hit theatres so I made a DVD cover!


  • Chris Oakley

    Final scene of “The String Kings, Part 2”.

    Int. Princeton IAS coffee room. Day.

    The floor is strewn with dead bodies, weapons, broken coffee cups and copies of “Strings 2006”. THE BIG BOSS and THE KID are only ones left alive. THE KID hides behind the counter.


    Come out, you little squirt. Come out. You can’t hide any longer.


    Who you calling a little squirt? My researchers were bigger than you in your own town. And we have more published on M theory than the whole of the IAS. A lot more.


    Yeah. Must admit, I underestimated you. Thought you were just some flash-in-the-pan careerist scumbag who’d do anything to get noticed. Really didn’t think that you might have a mind of your own. Thought I could control you. Well – looks like I got that wrong.


    You just f***ing ignored me! I f***ing worshipped you, and was prepared to do anything for you! Dispose of your enemies, give presentations at major conferences, clean your boots, get you Czech babes and substances, and you just f***ing ignored me!


    Why should I not ignore you? You’re an idiot. A useful idiot, maybe, but an idiot just the same. Having you on my team would have been embarrassing.

    THE KID [Waving an automatic pistol threateningly]

    Is this how you show your gratitude? Is it? We do more for M theory than anyone alive, and you just ignore us?


    [Laughing] M theory! All this about M theory! Just don’t get it, do you? M theory was a joke! In this very room, I once said that if I walked off a cliff then hundreds of String Theorists would gladly follow. Langlands didn’t believe me, so I challenged him. I said, “OK – come up with a theory. Anything, Doesn’t matter how stupid. Come up with it. I’ll present at a conference, and I bet you that they’ll all be working on it within a week.” So he came up with M theory. I asked him what the “M” stood for: he wouldn’t tell me, but it didn’t matter. I presented it at a con, and sure enough soon everyone was working on it. Of course, no-one knows what M theory is, including me, but the thing I know that they don’t is that it doesn’t exist – it’s a joke! And of course no-one questions it less or tries to promote it more eagerly than The Kid, my eager lapdog!

    THE KID [With each syllable he fires a bullet at THE BIG BOSS.]

    You were my f***ing idol!

    THE KID is then shot by a police marksman outside the building. Sound of broken glass. Camera zooms out. Theme music and credits.

  • nc

    😉 Just saved Dr Oakley’s comment in case someone accidentally deletes it for being too funny. When renormalization due to vacuum polarization phenomena is finally proved mechanistically correct and vital to the further development of QFT, he can take up commedy script writing as a recreation…

  • Chris Oakley


    I wasn’t joking. That piece of script arrived from the future (the future in my frame of reference, at least) through a freak wormhole that opened up in the space-time continuum on account of quantum effects from the compactified dimensions.

  • graviton383

    I like escapism in movies; I’m still waiting for the promised Lord of the Strings trilogy by stevem…

  • Chris Oakley

    What about Yellow Submarine, with Peter W as the chief of the Blue Meanies? I think that that would be more apposite.

  • Uncle Enzo

    Sean must have already been tenured.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    I read Woit telling that the “fine tunning” argument of supersymmetry was devised by Witten in 1981 in Sicily.

  • Plato

    #30 must have touched some supersymmetrical existence and information was downloaded through the anomalistic features of the super fluid?:)

    It was if he stood in the middle of “no where,” between the ephemeral and the realistic, waiting for this time to come.

    ….and then, through “symmetry breaking” dropped from the 22nd century into his compacted brain of reference. The idea was born. :)

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Steve (or Stevem) didn’t care for the Clifford Johnson/Samuel L. Jackson dialogue, but I personally found the Johnson/Jackson rant about “M*****f****** loops on a brane…” to be classic.

    Another favorite scene for me was the flashback where a then sevenish Lubosh takes down a much older Communist Youth League punk with a couple of well-chosen matrix multiplications and a differentiation under the integral sign.

    It didn’t make it into the theatrical cut of course, but I hope that the scene with Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan as ditzy coeds in Joe Polchinski’s class unable to come up with concrete examples of trowser diagrams might be restored in the DVD.

  • Chris W.

    Off topic, but maybe worth a separate post: Gregg Easterbrook has gone off in his typically muddled way about some recent supernova observations that allegedly undermine the use of supernovas as standard candles in observational cosmology. See this blog post from NPR’s Radio Open Source.

  • Elliot


    with all due respect it is not worth a seperate post.


  • Jimbo

    Oakley’s rundown of StringKings 2 had me splitting a gut to the point of seeing stars !!! Altho somehow, I don’t think Lubos finds any of this humorous….

  • Chris Oakley


    I don’t think that, as far as Lubos is concerned, there is any such thing as bad publicity.

    On the subject of which, if a String version of “Yellow Submarine” gets made then I would not mind a cameo as a Blue Meanie. Film producers please take note.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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