A giant chandelier hung above a buffet table in the great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences, in the spot normally occupied by Foucault pendulum which measures the rotation of the earth. It was shaped like a Christmas tree and covered with hundreds of tiny white bulbs rotating slowly, first clockwise and then counterclockwise.

"Look at the pendulum," said a guest at the Academy's annual New Years's Day reception for members, associates and friends.

"Actually, no," an escort who was obviously a scientist told her. "A Foucault pendulum doesn't rotate -- it swings."

While the chandelier rotated, everything else was swinging at the reception -- but swinging quietly and without friction, the way a good pendulum does. The guests chatted quietly, nibbled hors d'oeuvres and sipped eggnog or punch, prepared by Ridgewell's from recipes supplied by an Academy staff member who insisted that the ingredients were "a scientific secret."

"You know, a lot of the guys in this room could change the course of history," said Frank Press, science adviser to President Carter, looking across the Great Hall. "If we're going to survive, it will be through technical innovation. We're good at it, fortunately, and these are the people who produce the new knowledge to make it happen."

One of the people he pointed out was Noble Prize winner Christian Anfinsen, who is now at now at work on the synthesis of interferon, a new substance being investigated as a possible cure for some forms of cancer. Anfinsen was chatting about sailing, his hobby, with NAS president Philip Handler, but interrupted his conversation to talk about interferon: "It can be produced naturally form human blood, but right now the total world production by this method is only enough to treat about 25 people. So it's a race between us chemists trying to synthesize it and the genetic engineers trying to produce it biologically."

"May somebody win," said a bystander, and Anfinsen smiled agreement while lighting up a cigarette he had taken out after the subject turned to cancer.

"I quit them when I turned 50 but started up again at 60," he said, half-apologetically. Did the resumption mean he had hopes about new treatments for cancer? He smiled noncommittally and said that he was very excited about the possibilities of interferon.

Janet Solinger of Smithsonian Associates was very excited about a fourthcoming visit by the king of Belgium, for which she has been helping to make arrangements. "He will be visiting New York," she said, "and I suggested that they might want to give him a key to the city. His grand marshal told me, 'The king has been to New York before and probably has a key to the city.' But I told him that was 20 years ago, and they've probably changed the lock."

Near the buffet table, friends were admiring a pin worn by Mrs. John Gardner -- circular in shape, about an inch in diameter and studded with diamonds around its circumference. "It's my 45th-anniversary pin," she explained, adding in a tone of mock-complaint: "the 40th anniversary one was bigger."

"The 50th will be even smaller," said her husband resting his mind momentarily from the concerns of Common Cause. "And there will be no jewels -- just gold."

"By then," a friend suggested, "gold may be more expensive than diamonds."

In a corner, sipping punch quietly, was King Hubbert, a scientist who was deferred to by others present as "a legend in his own time" because he began predicting the current energy crisis back in 1948.

"Children born in the 1930s will see the United States consume most of its gas and oil in their lifetimes," Hubbert said. "The biggest substitute is solar energy and we're treating it like a skunk. We had better get cracking on it while we still have fossil fuels to coast on." Ambassador Chai Zemin of China, one of several ambassadors at the party, chated with guest through an interpreter and said that his government is "very pleased at the progress that has been made in the exchange of scientific information with the United States."

Mary Bullock, who is in charge of a Committee on Scholarly Communications with China, said that there are now "800 Chinese scholars studying in the United States mostly in applied sciences. This is a very spectacular growth when you consider there was none a year ago."

Also happy about rapid growth figures was Allen Hammond, editor of Science 80 magazine, which is about to publish its third issue, an edition of 500,000 copies. "Our first issues, a few months ago, only sold 250,000," he said.

Meanwhile, back at the buffet, a guest was worrying about the absent pendulum. "We can't do without it," she said. "The whole universe runs on that pendulum."

"It's all right," a scientist friend reassured her. "They had a spare at the Smithsonian."