"I've always wanted to meet Isaac Newton," said physicist Leon Cooper, reaching out to shake the hand of actor Brian Bedford last night in the Kennedy Center Atrium. Bedford, who plays Sir Isaac (sort of) in Du rrenmatt's "The Physicists," was chatting with George Grizzard (who plays Einstein), William Shockley (who invented the transistor) and other partygoers after last night's performance of the play about knowledge and power and the dangers thereof.

"I met Einstein once," Cooper was explaining to Bedford, "but I've never had a chance to meet Newton" (who died in 1727). "Einstein was a very old man and I was very young. I didn't want to bother him with a silly question, so I just said hello from a distance."

"Hero worship?" asked Bedford. "Hero worship," said Cooper, who was one of four Nobel prize-winning physicists who attended last night's performance and the after-show party. The others were Donald Arthur Glaser, who invented the bubble chamber (which is used to track the paths of subatomic particles); Charles Townes (lasers); and Shockley.

"Hi, I'm Melvin Laird," said the burly man who was secretary of defense in the Nixon administration, shouldering his way roughly through the crowd to shake Shockley's hand. At the other end of the Atrium, Townes was engaged in a deep discussion of science and ethics with former Maryland representative Newton Steers. "Those physicists in the play could have been biologists," Steers was saying. "A lot of the ethical questions have shifted from physics to biology in the last few years."

"The questions raised in the play could apply to anyone, not just scientists," Townes answered. "It's really a play about using the end to justify the means -- about doing terrible things in the name of a good cause -- and anyone can do that."

Around them, partygoers were nibbling at wild rice, apple salad, duck prepared in a Chinese style and sweet-and-sour shrimp. Conversations focused largely on the play, which raises questions about science and politics: Should scientists become power politicians? Should they try to withdraw or withhold their knowledge from those who may misuse it? "We should all be power politicians, scientists and everyone else," Cooper suggested. "It's impossible to withhold our knowledge," said Glaser. "Many men are working on the same problems at the same time, and we are not a homogeneous fraternity. If one of us doesn't make a discovery, someone else will."

Though they tend to insist they can't be blamed for what other people do with their discoveries, the physicists are proud of the positive uses that are made of their work. "Some people seem to associate lasers with death rays," said Townes, "and I tell them that a pistol is a cheaper and much more effective way to kill people. I do get a kick out of meeting people who have been helped by laser surgery -- operations for detached retinas and a lot of other problems . . . lasers have been used to drill a tunnel under San Francisco Bay, for example."

Shockley is amused to find himself hailed as a benefactor of mankind because the transistor radio has resulted from his discoveries. "But I really get a feeling of satisfaction," he said, "when I see someone walking down the street wearing those bulgy eyeglass frames that contain a transistorized hearing aid. I saw Herbert Hoover in my youth, and he was carrying a hearing aid in a box that was that big." And his hands traced a large cube, about the size of a breadbox.