For hundreds of years science progressed, and physics was one of the main sciences following the method that having experiments and theories going hand in hand, could offer new and exciting interpretations for the worlds phenomena. This mechanism, giving the foundations of our agricultural, technological, and medical progress, has at least partially gotten stuck thirty years ago. In the eighties, when the next step along the lines of explanations for the way the universe works seemed right behind the corner, the main candidate was string theory. It promised to be able and unify the quantum level of explanations of the phenomena at the smallest of scales, with general relativity, and gravity, at the largest scales of the universe. As years passed without the promised breakthrough, it became clear to some, as many were sucked into the well oiled process of how academic science works today with fad- and authority-based financing, that string theory ran the risk of diluting the power of the scientific method itself, by operating contrary to all previous steps: it could find a theory that could match any given set of data!
In his book The Trouble With Physics, Lee Smolin offers an alternative view* of not only his own theories, but also suggests important changes in the mechanisms of how official science allocates resources today, to help explore as many as possible of the different ideas.
These days there have been new developments in the field, with the progressive release of experimental data from the US accelerator (and a lot of apprehension in Europe because of a further delay in the coming online of the latest accelerator there). There are some indications that could lead to the identification of a new particle, called Higgs, that is at the basis of the origin of mass. This would not verify or falsify string theory itself, which is too slick to be so easily cornered, but will nonetheless represent a step in the right direction.
I am especially pleased that my physicist friend Tommaso Dorigo, whose blog is discussing the US results, is receiving coverage in the New York Times, in a clear and correct article about this subject.
*Larry Lessig told me that he would bring this book, with others, to his summer retreat after I recommended it to him. What I told him is that the switches in the points of view in search of the fundamentals that the various unifications of physical theories required are very similar, in my mind, to looking from law to politics, in search of fundamentals. Both law and politics are at the foundation of human societies, and their interactions define the way society benefits its members.