A shout of joy came from a roach-infested Massachusetts Avenue apartment that serves as the editorial office of Science 82, which yesterday afternoon received a National Magazine Award for general excellence less than three years after it began publication as Science 80, the title that still appears on the apartment door. The award went to Science 81.

"I'd have to say this is pretty unusual for such a new magazine to win," said Robert Kenyon, the executive director of the American Society of Magazine Editors, which runs the awards program.

But then again, much about Science 82 is unusual: It began with a circulation of 200,000, on a budget of $1,000,000, in a field already littered with several science magazines. Now it delivers 700,000 copies monthly, is already in the black, has outlived at least two members of its competition and has surpassed in circulation all but Time Inc.'s Discover.

Its topics are as diverse as dieting, nuclear fusion and computer choreography, pitched to an audience that is 70 percent male, 85 percent college-educated, with a median age of 39 and a median income of $36,000.

"Of all the science magazines aimed at the layman ," said Scientific American pubisher Gerard Piel, quick to point out that he does not consider Science 82 a competitor, "it is clearly the one with my highest admiration."

"We've been astounded at the way it's worked," said William Carey, the publisher of Science 82 and the executive director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which owns the magazine. "Most of this was editor Allen Hammond's vision. He wrote a concept paper for the magazine, and the board thought, 'What a whale of an idea.' Initially we gave him a budget of $300,000 for preliminaries. Then a little bit more. Now the organization has a $32 million annual budget, of which $12 or $13 million is generated by Science 82."

Although he has a doctorate from Harvard in geophysics, the 38-year-old Hammond has spent 12 years as a journalist--eight of them editing the research news section of Science, a scholarly, century-old weekly also published by the AAAS. Hammond's staff includes 30-year-old cofounder and managing editor Eric Schrier, and Rodney Williams, the 30-year-old art director who has made Science 82 easily the most attractive of the half-dozen or so science monthlies.

"I can tell you what we're trying to do, although we don't always manage to do it," said Hammond, whose office displays a Whitney Darrow cartoon from The New Yorker of a newsstand that has his magazine surrounded by 11 other science publications, with the annotation, "When you make The New Yorker, you've made it!"

"There are several ways to deal with science. One is the old-fashioned gee-whiz approach, like Popular Science. Then there's the Scientific American approach: Here is the real stuff; you should learn this. We view science as part of culture. We pick stories not just because they're important scientifically, but more because they're important culturally.

"The board of the AAAS seems delighted with the magazine. The only thing they're asking is, 'When are you going to run more controversial articles?' The only magazine really in competition with us is Discover.

"When it became obvious that we were going to start publishing before Discover did, [Time Inc. editor-in-chief] Henry Grunwald came down to meet with Bill Carey and me, and asked if we'd like to try a joint publishing venture. He said, 'If you guys come in and we come in, we'll crush you.' Bill said, 'We'll just have to take our chances, Henry.' "

Grunwald had a slightly different recollection yesterday. "I most certainly do not recall saying, 'We'll crush you,' " he said. "If I may say so, it isn't characteristic of me, but can one ever recall exactly what one said two or three years ago?"

Science 82 does not anticipate expanding its circulation much beyond 750,000. "Al decided he'd have to change the content of the magazine to do that, which is something he doesn't want to do," said general manager Carol LePere. "And the financial risks would become very great compared with the potential profit. Anyway, this is the largest scientific organization in the world. This place had the commitment NOT to make money, if anything; the commitment was to excellence and communicating science to the public. The magazine is terrific, and the circulation is very healthy. We managed to cream off the people waiting for a good general-interest science magazine. We've had some advantages. Since we're a nonprofit corporation, it costs us 50 percent less on postage to do solicitation mailings than it costs Discover. But we're also getting a 6 percent response, which is about double the industry standard."

In fact, things seem so rosy that you'd think they have nothing to complain about at Science 82.

"Nothing except the roaches," said Hammond. "It seems like we're crushing a new crew every three days."