WHAT IS A SCIENTIST? A man or woman alien from us -- who sacrifices food and sleep in favor of endless hours in the laboratory -- or someone musch like the rest of us, only more so? Does scientific genius reveal itself through methodical, meticulous work, or as a flash of inspiration that comes in the middle of the night, or while playing tennis, or, as it did for Archimedes, in the bathtub?

We have heard these questions raised before, by such elegant writers as Lewis Thomas, June Goodfield and Berton Roueche. Now Carol Eron approaches them in a new way, through a collection of "six great medical detective stories" in which scientists track down a common enemy: the elusive virus. The virus, a dangerous chameleon of a microbe, "can endure for hundreds of years under hostile conditions," Eron writes: "returned to hospitable terrain, it springs to virulent life." It coerces healthy living cells to act as the template for its own reproduction -- reproduction the virus cannot accomplish alone. "Enslaving the cell to its own ends, the virus issues orders, shutting down the cells vital manufacturing processes, and starting production of materials that will form viral progeny."

Eron has chosen six important tales to tell in her recapitulation of the scientific process: the discovery of vaccines for yellow fever and for polio; the marketing of a drug to combat herpes virus; explorations into the viral mechanisms of cancer growth and of the "slow virus" responsible for a bizarre brain degeneration; and the search -- in vain -- for a cure for the common cold. The facts alone should make for some exciting reading. In the title story, for instance, Dr. Carleton Gajdusek of the National Institutes of Health spends months in the jungles and hilltops of Papua New Guinea, tracking down cases of the mysterious neurological disease called kuru (for "shaking") that has been killing off hundreds of Fore tribesmen.

Against the orders of his superiors, Gajdusek stays on the island to gather data on 200 active kuru cases. He covers nearly 2,000 miles of rugged terrain "by foot, Jeep, raft, canoe, and light plane" to mark off the geographic range of this progressive, incurable disease. He traces trade routes and marriage patterns. He looks for signs of metal or other toxic poisoning in the victims' bodies. And then he finally stumbles on the truth, when a scientist studying slow virus disease in sheep suggests that kuru may also be caused by a slow virus. Tedious lab work over the next two years confirms this hunch, which is especially difficult to prove since slow viruses leave no clues to their presence. Later, Gajdusek learns how the virus was transmitted among the Fore people: through ritual cannibalism. In a practice the natives would not admit to, even to Gajdusek, the Fores showed their respect for the dead during the funeral ceremony by cooking and eating the brain.

But somehow, in Eron's hands, even so intriguing a story as this one seems wooden. By the time we reach it, we have already waded through three other tales, and the actors are beginning to seem all of a piece: noble, brilliant men (and men they all are, except for a few graduate students and laboratory wives) with an engaging blend of vision, dedication and well-earned arrogance.

The chronology of experiments and intuitive leaps that lead the scientists toward long-sought answers -- and toward better questions -- is what could have made this book read like a good mystery. Underlying it all, we need to know why they move from one experiment to the next. But since Eron herself does not seem fully to understand how her microbe hunters get logically from point A to point B, we, too, are left guessing as to just how these "detective stories" were solved.

Because we never really get inside their reasoning, we cannot grow to appreciate and revere these scientists the way Eron seems to. We have only her word that they are brilliant men. She tells us, for example, that Albert Sabin, the inventor of the polio vaccine, was described by a colleague as "as smart as all outdoors," and that Max Theiler, who conquered yellow fever, worked hard after his 8-year-old son died because he believed "the only reason for existence . . . was to do something worthwhile." Surely these Nobel laureates deserve more than cliches to describe their brains and dedication.

Typical of the devices Eron uses to bring her stick figure scientists to life are awkward biographical flashbacks ("In short, he hadn't known what he wanted to do, which was an embarrassing predicament for the son of Sir Arnold Theiler"), cumbersome details ("'I began thinking about the puzzle,' he said, springing up to draw on a brown chalkboard in his tidy modern office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology"), and non-sequitors ("Sabin, now married, did not have any children, but he became more interested in polio"). And she makes frequent use of an old journalistic trick: when in doubt, quote. The most complicated story she tells, about the discovery of reverse transcriptase in cancer-causing viruses, reads like a verbatim account of her interview with Dr. David Baltimore, one of the biologists who won the Nobel Prize for this work in 1975. Although she obviously interviewed Baltimore at length (at least long enough to have him snap a rubber band at her and retrieve it in mid-flight), Eron seems not to have really understood his jargon. The result, here as at other points in the book, is that she tells the story in the scientist's words and leaves us all as confused as she is.

The best that can be said about The Virus That Ate Cannibals is that it whets the reader's appetite to know more about what drives scientists to do what they do. But this book alone gives us few clues. Eron does state at the outset that the scientists she describes depend for their successes on "luck, . . . genius, determination, the golden error, and mostly hard work." But by the end of the book we know only that this is the case; we do not know how or why it is.