The article highlights two physicists (Peter Woit and Lee Smolin) who have books coming out in September, and who both believe that string theory--which everyone admits has yet to produce a prediction that can be tested by experiment--is taking physics in a very wrong direction. The WSJ article only interviews one pro-string physicist, and if you want to fault the article you can use this ratio as evidence.
All of the cool crowd in physics works on string theory. But you'd never know it by this WSJ article or by the blog of the most prominent string theorist on the Web, Lubos Motl of Harvard. Motl is a different sort of physicist in that he's not reserved about expressing his opinion about string theory, or anything else for that matter, including your manhood and your mother's manhood.
Lubos goes to bat for string theory's case and against the WSJ's point of view, but it's not a very strong turn at bat because mostly instead of making counterarguments against the points raised in the article he goes about questioning people's sanity and, seemingly, their very right to walk upon this earth while holding the opinions they do. He would have made a better case if he'd stuck to the physics. But such is not his way.
This is all just a way for me to say that I've been reading Leonard Susskind's new book, The Cosmic Landscape: String Theory and the Illusion of Intelligent Design. The picture of the universe that string theorists are painting lately is a strange and bizarre one that, if only it were true, would be perhaps the most amazing thing you could imagine: that we live in a universe that is a mere bubble in a much more immense sea of bubbles, in each of which the laws of physics are profoundly different than they are here.
Why do we live here? Because the laws of physics allow it. That's not the complete answer, but it's close.
The problem is, as I understand it, that string theory (or, more generally, the theory that physicist call "M-theory") seems to allow a very large number of possible solutions, or as the physicists call them, vacuua (as in the plural of "vacuum"). In fact, there are roughly 10-to-the-500th-power vacuua. That's an immense number that I don't even know how to describe except by using scientific notation. It's much more than a googol, or even a googol of googols. But it's less than a googolplex.
So rather than asking "how do we manipulate the mathematics to choose the one vacuum that represents our universe?" string theoriests like Susskind are saying, all these vacuums are allowed and all describe possible universes. In one or two of them the photon mass is zero and the electron has a mass of 0.511 MeV (and...), but in others the graviton is massive and quarks can be light-years apart and atoms can't even form and nothing is the way it seems here. And in still others..., well, you get the picture, times 10^500.
The universe in which we happen to find ourselves is distinguished as the one whose fundamental constants and particle masses are such that everything combines to produce life (at least, as we know it).
It's pretty weird, wild stuff, and if you want to know more you should read Susskind's book as best you can. Despite the WSJ article, string theory doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon, though maybe a few more people will start jumping on the Woit/Smolin bandwagon. If two people can comprise a bandwagon. I'm not sure.