Here is something, which may be aiming a little low...

The main two ways we describe our universe, quantum mechanics and general relativity, contradict each other when applied simultaneously. This seems to point out that the quantum nature of spacetime itself needs to be understood better.

One way to resolve theoretical problems with our current understanding of spacetime is to embed it in a larger theoretical structure, which has powerful underlying symmetries. Those symmetries cannot be too restrictive: they should be enough not only to make the model well-behaved, but also to be consistent with the not-quite-so-symmetric world we see around us.

This way of thinking has led to the theoretical structure of string theory and then M-theory. To study the structure of the theory, it is useful to first concentrate on the most symmetric situations, even though these are the most removed from our world. At first, this led to study of supersymmetric string theories in 10 dimensions (higher dimensional theories are more symmetric - their Lorentz invariance is larger and more restrictive). Later it turned out that those are all secretly related to an even larger and more symmetric structure, dubbed M-theory, which describes all the previously known string theories as well as 11-dimensional supergravity.

The story is not finished, we only have bits and pieces of the underlying structure that is M-theory. But, we do have many indications we are on the right track. As always with deep structures we found side benefits in the form of unexpected applications in mathematics and physics.

One of the unexpected discoveries is that quantum gravity is not all that different from other parts of physics, and sometimes conventional physics can be reformulated in different variables to make it equivalent to a quantum gravitational theory. Using classical and semi-classical gravity calculations then helps us explore conventional physics in regimes otherwise inaccessible. This is the whole subject of holography and its applications.

So, what we seem to have found is, instead of a specific model to describe our universe at short distances (or high energies), a whole new language in which we describe and discuss physics - and not just high energy physics. Where precisely this is going to lead is anyone’s guess.

Now, if your grandmother feels patronized, has more knowledge of physics and would like to ask more specific questions, I can try to add more details. It is a very large subject...

(see also the answers to this similar question)

This post imported from StackExchange Physics at 2014-04-10 16:25 (UCT), posted by SE-user user566