IN THE MILLIONS of words we read about society which explain, which condemn, which recommend, there is not much attempt to explain human activity as play; yet as recently as 1944 Johan Huizinga could still perceive it as the central motif of civilized behavior. Civilization "does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb; it arises in and as play and never leaves it," he wrote in Homo Ludens . He was facing backwards in time. Plato wrote that life must be lived as play, but Marx I am sure did not; James Reston does not. Scientists are something of an anachronism.

What is tripping much of science of its play is a sudden access of seriousness about means: space, staff, money. In the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, where most of the best experiments on atomic and nuclear physics were done at the beginning of this century on an annual budget of about a thousand pounds, there was a certain joy in the attainment of great results by narrow means. It was possible then. Now theoretical work, which needs only pencil, paper, and access to a computer, is almost all that can be done cheaply, and even for this it is best to be located very near a laboratory where experiments go on night and day. Once inside the doors, with the high-voltage lights on and the air vibrating with the sound of complex machinery, it is possible to feel oneself part of an immense effort, requiring extreme mental and physical training and endurance, and undertaken almost purely for pleasure.

But the competition to be the first to understand is also a competition for funds, and these funds come increasingly from the public purse. How did this happen? Why are the nations willing to pay? And what do they get for their money?

Daniel Keveles tells how from the beginning of the Republic, physicists have tried to maintain their position in it. They have two things to offer: advice and service in time of war; and at all times the knowledge and techniques that go into what is called high technology. In return, they want their special knowledge to be listened to when policy is formed, and they want facilities for research: dependable money and space. It is a long, heavy story, and the physicits of its title are people more concerned with money and power than with ideas. Keveles is strongest in straight history, for he has read everything and mastered the old battle plans. His critical comments seem to me weakened by conventional buzz-words such as elitism , never defined, which is used continually with negative overtones. Sometimes it refers to the Tender Loving Care that a scientific community reserves for those very few members who do things that are really good; sometimes it is the Old Boy business - the two are never analyzed, never distinguished. The essential defect of this substantial and important book is that questions of scientific value cannot be understood without examining science itself, and that is what we are not invited to do.

It does not help in understanding these complex questions to make too much of a distinction between pure and applied science. Particle physics aside, most pure science has practical implications that researchers do not find boring to contemplate, and it is a great mistake to think of high technology as living off crumbs of thought which fall from the table when real scientists dine. Americans are especially good at high technology. It was only a few years ago, when Japanese hand-held calculators were about to drive American manufacturers to the wall, that the microprocessor was developed in this country out of some of the most profound contemporary knowledge of materials and techniques. Microprocessors are the tiny wafers of silicon, etched and overlaid with details that can be seen only under a strong microscope, that make it possible to fit a programmable computer into the pocket of a shirt.

I suppose that ultimately, to fill the needs of war and economics, a country such as ours must have first-class research organizations with first-class people in them, and that this is why the government allocates really large amounts of money to scientific research that has no obvious relevance to national defense or the balance of payments. Both World Wars were to a great extent wars between physicists, and it is through this fact that the expensive and vital play we call "research" has, not without uncertainty and many little economies, managed to survive.

Out of it comes a vision of the sensible world - abstract, crazy perhaps, but compellingly beautiful. Is there an absolute truth towards which it tends? If we are visited by another race, will their physical theories match ours? Almost nobody thinks so. At the bottom, surely, is truth, but the mathematical language in which we write it down is shaped by our minds and history as our clothes are shaped by our bodies.If by myth I mean a charateristically human way of telling the truth, it is a myth, and thosewho contruct it, while they work, are conscious of being at play with a mysterious beauty, and of little else.