THERE ARE TIMES when we forget

that science is a social activity. After men and women go to work at most jobs, they come home knowing how thin the line is between fooling around and doing things right. Scientists know this too, of course, yet for mysterious reasons we seem willing to take their word on almost anything with few questions asked. We love them, probably. If the world were one big happy family, no hurt would come out of the relationship. But because the work-a-day life of science is no more or less pure than any other, we should not be surprised to find a bit of wrong-headedness from time to time. The development of nuclear energy, for example, has been looking bad for quite a while now, despite the vast human genius it represents.

What's so bad about it? Doesn't the atom still mean national security and a feasible alternative to fossil fuels? To answer yes begs that a few numbers be digested. At present, there are over 50,000 nuclear bombs deployed around the world. By the year 2000, approximately 321,300 spent-fuel assemblies from commercial reactors (amounting to nearly 100,000 tons of the most radioactive form of waste) will have accumulated, along with another 11 million cubic feet of high-level liquid waste. So-called "low-level" inventories will exceed 376 million cubic feet, and there will be 11.3 billion cubic feet of uranium mill tailings. Much of this material will be lethally radioactive for the next 250,000 years.

Numbers like these are big enough to approach meaninglessness. The appalling fact is that for the first 30 years of the nuclear age, nobody with real responsibility for policy-making power ever bothered to digest the flesh-and-blood implications of any of them. And so here we stand today, increasingly up to our figurative necks in mutagenic substances, trying to keep the bombs from being used while we squint 250,000 years into the future. It sounds too ridiculous to be true.

The authors of these three good books evidently find it more than just ridiculous. At different levels, they are each scared to hell. For John Gofman--medical physicist, co-discoverer of Uranium-233, first man to isolate plutonium, Manhattan Project veteran--the fear is open, and one gets the feeling that he has hunkered down to produce this encyclopedic survey of the biological effects of radiation. Fred Shapiro, a New Yorker staff writer, is as methodical and even-handed as one would expect in the pages of that refined magazine, but his discussion of radioactive waste disposal problems has the urgent voice of a man who has learned some terrible news. As for Elof A. Carlson--professor of biology and former student of Hermann Muller, who proved that radiation induces genetic mutations--there is obvious affection, fascination, and concern for his biographical subject, a Nobel laureate who spent most of his life battling against scientific orthodoxy.

The most valuable aspect of Dr. Gofman's book is that it starts from absolute zero. "This book is not bedtime reading," he warns gently at the start. "It is a reference book with which one can answer numerous practical questions, and it is also a book that demystifies a whole field of science, a field which is presently dominated around the world by a small circle of prominent experts." Gofman himself has felt the effects of this dominance. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission steadfastly maintained that there was a threshold of radiation exposure below which no health hazard existed. The supposedly safe, "no- effect" dose meant that American servicemen could participate in atomic bomb tests without risk, that nuclear plant workers could receive "yearly" doses of radiation, and that power plants could be designed to allow releases of radioactivity even during normal operation. Gofman gathered evidence that showed how the AEC's threshold was blarney, and soon found himself the target of a smear campaign directed from high levels of government. He retired from his professorship at Berkeley in 1975 after realizing that he could no longer obtain federal research funds, but by no means surrendered his scientific work. Radiation and Human Health is the rare kind of effort that makes the medical issues surrounding nuclear energy accessible to intelligent readers, from truck drivers and loaders of radioactive cargo to nuclear engineers and physicians. It is going to be a terrible thorn in the foot of dentists who love to give X-rays, public relations people at the utility companies, and Army recruiters looking for young men to fight limited nuclear wars.

Fred Shapiro has not written a textbook, but like Gofman he knows the value of starting with fundamentals and arguing slowly upward. He has a reporter's ear for narrative and eye for detail which make Radwaste attractive as bedtime reading. He seems to have wandered around America for years from site to site, talking to the people who wake up every morning with the so-far hopeless job of putting piles of radioactive waste where they cannot threaten life. Our government has never articulated a long- term management program for either federal or commercial nuclear waste. Shapiro's anecdotes thus tend to be of the sort that cause readers to question whose interests are served by nuclear power. Given President Reagan's current plans for reviving the nuclear industry, this may be a subversive reaction, but only an ostrich could act otherwise after reading Radwaste.

Professor Carlson, who is an historian of genetics as well as a biologist, may or may not possess the activist drive evident in Gofman and Shapiro. Yet the title of his biography points to matters wider than just the irradiation of fruit flies for which Muller became famous. This is essentially a modest, academic biography-- "an accurate account of what he did, what he believed in, and what his values were"--but Hermann Muller was surely not a modest academic. Indeed, if Warren Beatty had been more interested in scientists than in romantic journalists, then movie audiences this season would be watching the life of Muller rather than of John Reed. There are scenes from Muller's career to match almost anything in Reed's--college days at Columbia when he "traded in the three R's for the three S's: science, sex, and socialism," narrow escapes from Nazi Europe and Stalin-Lysenko Russia, Loyalist service in Spain, brushes with the House Un- American Activities Committee, and of course through it all his creation of a new scientific field. (Muller believed that "there is no amount of radiation so small that it cannot provide harmful effects," an opinion that triggered the same AEC wrath that Gofman later endured.) Carlson has exploited this flashy material with a scholar's discipline, not a dramatist's flare for psychological insight or social context. Yet we come away with a vivid picture of how authoritarian governments can perversely influence the development of science, as well as a close understanding of Muller's technical achievements. The biography is an important first look at a brilliant figure in 20th-century science, and we can now hope for more delectable treatments.

The history of science relies on many sources other than laboratory records. Like most grand stories it contains evidence of the shakiness of civilization, of rationality intertwined with profound illusion. The current debate about nuclear energy still needs all the careful information we can muster on both sides. From a scientist, a journatist, and a biographer we haffeve here the kind of material that advances the debate to a higher level.y