Heralds Of Science -- At the Museum of History and Technology through June 6.

The Smithsonian has a splendid new exhibit that seems expressly designed for the very short and very literate.

"Heralds of Science," 35 first editions of pivotal books and papers by such giants as Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Darwin, opened this week at the National Museum of History and Technology.

The works are the cream of the fabulous collection donated by science historian Bern Dibner in 1974, and it is a privilege to have a look at rare and fragile items that normally are available only to scholars. Now, arranged in very low cases, they are available to anyone who is limber.

They are the volumes that mark the great turning points in science, There is Vesalius, making bold to dissect cadavers to try to find out what really makes us tick. Here is Marie Sklodowska Curie's original paper on radiation, with her name misspelled. There stands Copernicus, stilling the music of the spheres with his pronouncement that the earth -- and, by implication, Man -- is not the center and jewel of the universe. Here is Darwin, modestly if not diffidently making a monkey out of Bishop Ussher.

Surrounded by such books, one has a sense of being in a temple of thought. This sense is heightened by the necessity to stoop or kneel in order to see some of the books, instruments and memorabilia, as well as to read many of the cards. And having done so, even a wel-grounded lay follower of science is likely to find soem of the notes rather cursory or obscure.

There is, in short, thoughtlessness if not a touch of arrogance in the layout of the exhibit. But what the hell, for these books it's worth getting down on your knees.