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!

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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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor
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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] cosmicvariance.com .

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