Suppose you discovered a new life form.

No, even better, whole colonies of new life forms that jolted man's historic assumptions about the origin and nature of all living matter. And suppose, in addition, you managed to uncover the first firm evidence of how the Earth itself is put together, by diving in a submarine miles beneath the sea and finding the molten scar tissue of the Earth's shifting crust.

Suppose you did that and the world sort of ... shrugged.

Then suppose, as much for the challenge as for the science of the thing, you screwed a 20-year-old night-fighter's sniper scope, developed for killing Viet Cong, onto a television camera to make a system that practically sees in the dark, and you went out and found the RMS Titanic. And the world beat a path to your door. But your academic colleagues sniffed that you're a "popularizer" and call you "Carl Sagan with gills."

How do you deal with that?

"I like my mother's comment," says ocean explorer Robert Ballard, eyeballing his glass of Chardonnay with a kind of poetic resignation. "She said, 'You know, son, you've gone to college 13 years to get your doctorate and spent 13 years doing research and getting published and getting tenure. I hope you outlive the Titanic and aren't labeled with that the rest of your life.'

"And I said, 'Well Mom, I'm only 44. I'm gonna work real hard.' "

It's not that Ballard, who heads the Deep Submergence Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, doesn't love the Titanic. He studied accounts of its voyage for years, treasures its lore and savors the memories of that early morning hour on Sept. 1, 1985, when, after months of monotonous "mowing the lawn" of the North Atlantic with cameras and sonar, he first saw its wreckage appear on camera, 2 1/2 miles beneath the sea.

It has made him famous and will probably make him wealthy: His book "Discovering the Titanic," for which he received a reported six-figure advance from Warner Books, is scheduled for publication Oct. 16, with a planned first printing of 150,000 copies in seven languages. He turns down 15 speaking invitations for every one he accepts, at up to $10,000 a pop, and stars tomorrow in "National Geographic Explorer's" "Secrets of the Titanic" on cable television (WTBS, 9 p.m.). The Titanic conveyed him to the White House for a dinner with the prince and princess of Wales.

But it also led to cruel, mindless press badgering of his family, and fueled jealous carping in the academic communitythat he is some sort of submersible cowboy, hogging headlines and foundation grants with gee-whiz projects while less photogenic science goes begging. Most of all, he says, it has at once celebrated and overshadowed his real passion and purpose: the exploration of the 65 percent of Earth beneath the sea.

Though he's logged more hours in the deep sea than any scientist in history, most of it in the cramped confines of Woods Hole's three-man submersible Alvin, the 6-foot 2-inch Ballard says he's barely scratched the subsurface.

"There is so much unexplored territory," he marvels, in town for a visit with Geographic editors here. "We know more about the topography of Mars than the top of our own planet. When the president signed into law the Exclusive Economic Zone {extending U.S. boundaries 200 miles from the shoreline of any U.S. state or territory}, he effectively doubled the size of the country. Four Louisiana Purchases! But somehow the scope of that never got out to the public. And we know less about that territory than Lewis and Clark did when they started out to explore the first one."

He pauses wearily, a water-logged Don Quixote in the city of windmills, over his dinner. "You sit here and watch society and see its priorities and you just shake your head. Or you just get all involved in how stupid we are."

When Ballard returned to Woods Hole after finding the Titanic, he read a brief statement to a mob of reporters and then fled. Two days later, he starred at a National Geographic press conference, then disappeared again. The world was Titanic crazy, the phone was ringing off the hook, talk shows everywhere were after him, not to mention the foreign press. But the man some accuse of loving the limelight was nowhere to be found. Why?

"Well, in the first place, I was emotionally wasted. And I had not been prepared for that. I knew all about the Titanic and the 1,500 people lost and everything, but it was just an abstraction. I was Mr. Technology, Mr. Under Control. And we were all excited and happy as hell when we found it. Then someone said it's 2 a.m. and the Titanic sank at 2:30 and all of a sudden it hit all of us. And we went out on the deck. And it was like there were bodies all around us -- rowboats over here and people crying for help and the {steamship} California over there, in sight but not coming to help. And it just hit me like a sledgehammer.

"Plus I was zonked from sleep deprivation. I was like a POW -- I would have confessed to anything. Even days later, I remember working in my cabin aboard ship on that stupid little speech {for the Woods Hole homecoming} -- what was it, a minute long? -- and then not being able to see any more. And finding the paper soaking wet. I can't explain it. I didn't talk about the Titanic with anybody for about three months. Even my wife."

But the other reason he fled from the press, he says, is "I didn't want to be a piece of meat. I had dealt with the press some before, but I had never been, like, BREAKING NEWS! And that howling mob descended, screaming questions and throwing elbows Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wouldn't attempt ...

"Reporters were trying to interview my kids between classes at school. And it really hurt my oldest son. He's kind of quiet and shy, and they were yelling things like 'Why aren't you smart and famous like your Dad?' He came home and said, 'I wish Dad was a garbage man.' But we talked about it. About whether I should become maybe a carpenter.

"Of course my younger son, 16, he loved all the publicity. He said, 'Hey, now I'll be able to get girls!' "

Ballard emerged from hiding, he says, when the fickle eye of the press found a new obsession: "two women shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean who survived by eating their toothpaste. The next day -- equal billing. The Titanic was too important to me to go through that."

As the second bottle of wine arrives, Ballard warms to the subject. "To the news, it's all the same." He segues with wild gestures into an impressive imitation of Phil Donahue: " 'Today's guests -- we have Albert Einstein and Charles Manson. We're going to give each of them 47 seconds. Albert, what do you think about relativity? Now, Charles, was she really upset when you stabbed her?' And they equate that as equal. And I found that process revolting."

Revolting, but apparently unavoidable. Yesterday, Ballard was a guest on the "Today" show.

In the button-down world of science and academia, where numbers are safety and passions often suspect, men of action and enthusiasm tend to make people uneasy. Ballard, a self-described romantic "kid at heart" and technology junkie who enthuses at times like a Mensa-minded porpoise on uppers, acknowledges he discomfits some.

No narrow specialist, he is part engineer, part scientist and part adventurer. "I enjoy the mix," he says. "I like science because it's very disciplined and teaches you how to think logically, but my ultimate desire is to explore." With his trim, military bearing (he served as both an Army and a Navy officer and is reactivating his commission in the Naval Reserve), his occasionally flag-wrapped rhetoric and his gold Mickey Mouse watch (a gift from the folks at Disney World), he appears the antithesis of the rumpled data-gatherers who often populate the world of science. Moreover, while they may spend their days in stuffy labs hunched over computer screens, Ballard cruises off to make his discoveries in places like the Tongue of the Ocean or the Mountains of the Sea. Envy stalks any man with a perpetual tan.

But what may distinguish Ballard the most from his colleagues is his rare ability to articulate and communicate the wonder and excitement of discovery. Two days after returning to Woods Hole from finding the Titanic, still spaced-out from fatigue, he flew to Washington for the news conference at National Geographic. Few who attended will ever forget it. For more than 90 minutes, speaking without notes, he mesmerized the Washington press corps -- a group not known for its attention span -- not only with his explanation of the Titanic and his search for it, but with his evocative description of the sunless mountain ranges and chasms of the ocean floor.

To Ballard, such scientific missionary work is vital to the future of American science. Without it, he says, the American people will grow weary of funding projects they don't understand, and young people will lose interest in pursuing science as a career. "If we want more money, we're going to have to fight for it and convince the populace that science is important," he says. "We can't just sit in our ivory tower and say they don't appreciate us."

"To educate you must entertain," he says. "I really believe that. All people are busy. You have to get their attention. That's what I was trying to do with the Titanic: get people's attention to the ocean."

His latest attention-getter is a planned expedition to the Tyrrhenian Sea next year to search the ancient sea routes between Carthage and Rome for ships that foundered in Mediterranean storms. Many of the finest bronzes and vases of Greece and Rome have been recovered from such wrecks near the coast. "About one in a hundred sank in deep water," he says. "So you run the numbers and you come up with about 10,000 over an eight-century period in a relatively concentrated area. So statistically, it's a good game."

He hopes periodically to transmit live pictures of the expedition to a network of museums around the country to which high school students can be brought to taste the excitement of marine science in the field. There will be a two-way hook-up, he says, so students will be able to ask questions.

"We have to declare war on television," he says, "and on the role models it's extending to our kids. Look at the typical scientist you see portrayed on television: wears glasses, sort of meek, afraid of girls ... How can you possibly attract kids into science and engineering if their role model is a wimp?

"The interesting thing about exploration of the sea," he says, "is that it follows the classic pattern of the epic journey. You leave, go out and meet the elements -- the dragon -- and fight some sort of adversary. Then you attain truth, the pot of gold, and bring that back, pull up the drawbridge and lick your wounds. It's a quest."

For Ballard, the quest started in his birthplace of Wichita, Kan., the same place his paternal grandfather, a U.S. marshal, died in a gunfight. (A distant relative was the legendary gunslinger Bat Masterson.) His parents moved in his early youth to Southern California, however, where his father was, among other things, the chief engineer on the Minuteman missile's guidance system.

Ballard grew up in oceanside communities in Southern California, fishing, bodysurfing and endlessly fascinated by the sea. He read widely and passionately from H.G. Wells and Jules Verne (he says Captain Nemo is still his hero) and drank in the old adventure travelogues of Osa and Martin Johnson. He spent a high school summer as an intern in marine biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but heeded the advice of a mentor there who warned him of overcrowding in marine biology. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, he majored in both chemistry and geology and became the cadet commander of the Army ROTC unit. But he also played tennis and basketball and landed a part-time job in the ocean technology section of North American Aviation, which was designing submersibles.

Ballard was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant upon graduation in 1965, but the Army let him continue his studies, at the University of Hawaii. There he earned his keep as a porpoise trainer for a year at Sea Life Park.

In 1966, intent on an oceanographic career, he transfered to the Navy and, with his new wife Marjorie, moved east on assignment as liaison officer between Woods Hole and the Office of Naval Research.

The rest is undersea history. Ballard's passion for undersea geology and skill in submarine engineering were merged in the development and use of Alvin, a manned submersible that won early fame by finding and retrieving an unexploded H-bomb after a B52 crash off the coast of Spain.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, scientists had been surveying beneath the sea primarily by bouncing sound waves off the ocean floor. But Ballard and a few others became convinced that submersibles could help confirm the then-unproven theory of plate tectonics by exploring the points at which vast sections of the Earth's crust were thought to move against each other or apart.

In the summers of 1973 and '74, Alvin and its supporters, including Ballard, joined French researchers with two subs in what became known as Project FAMOUS (for French-American Mid-Ocean Undersea Study) on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an immense, 40,000-mile-long undersea mountain range thought to be a seam between two of the Earth's tectonic plates.

In dozens of dives they found and photographed undersea openings (known as volcanic rifts), proving the ridge is the result of volcanic matter pouring from the Earth's center -- creating, in effect, an immense conveyor belt on which entire continents ride on a billion-year trip toward the deep-sea trenches of the Pacific.

Project FAMOUS established Ballard as both a scientist and a master submersible operator. In 1977, when Oregon State University geophysicist Jack Corliss set out to explore similar volcanic vents near the Galapagos Islands, Ballard went along as his technical chief.

Almost immediately the expedition discovered a phenomenon the world has still not fully digested: huge clusters of extraordinary and never-before-seen living creatures -- giant clams, mounds of mussels, tiny white crabs and eight-foot red worms -- all thriving in crushing pressure and total darkness at the edge of volcanic vents thousands of feet beneath the surface where temperatures are hot enough to melt lead.

Sea water was apparently seeping into the volcanic area and spewing back out the vent, carrying with it immense loads of minerals sufficient to create and nourish life. Two years later, at vents off Baja California, Ballard discovered a related phenomenon: huge undersea geysers like chimneys of hell, burping black streams of mineral-loaded water that nourished similar colonies of bizarre life.

Since then, hundreds of vents have been found, many with their own unique ecosystems, and such adjacent exotica as a vast lake of molten lava on the ocean's floor.

The discoveries have touched off debates -- still not resolved -- touching on the very nature of life itself. Some scientists believe the environment of the vents may duplicate the prebiotic environment of Earth, giving clues to the birth of the earliest living creatures. Others are teased by what the volcanic ecosystems, with their tolerance of extreme heat, darkness and toxic chemicals, may suggest about life on other planets.

Between bites of, appropriately, blackened redfish, Ballard says that recent explorations of the deep-sea cool-water aquifers off Florida (he was not along) found similar undersea species thriving from the minerals alone.

"Now, it turns out," he said with a mischief-maker's smile, "they don't even need the heat."

Ballard and his wife live in a 120-year-old farmhouse near Woods Hole that they've been slowly renovating for years, adding such relatively recent amenities as a Jacuzzi and a 500-bottle wine cellar. Ballard's colleagues measure their closeness to him by the vintage of the Armagnac he pours them from the cellar. Married 21 years, he tightly guards his family privacy and voices some pride that he's never permitted an interview in his house. a day when at sea.

Inthe wake of the Titanic discovery, however, Ballard has been making changes in his life. One, which may be more apparent than real, is the reactivation of his naval commission. It is part, he says, of a desire to enlarge his naval role at Woods Hole, where he is in the second year of a four-year term in the $500,000 Navy Chair of Oceanography. Outgoing Navy Secretary John Lehman, an old Ballard friend, calls the explorer the Navy's "Bottom Gun" for oceanographic research. Ballard says he is fascinated by the hide-and-seek strategies of submarine warfare.

Another change, he says, grows out of his increasing impatience with the bureaucracy and methodology of science in the public sphere.

"You used to fund scientists on track records," he says. "You used to say, 'There's a guy who's done a lot of good work. I'll fund the individual.' Now you have to submit a proposal, the proposal has to go to peer review -- and you've got to deliver the results in a year.

"I stopped submitting proposals to the National Science Foundation. I just got tired of jumping through the hoop. It takes too much of my energy to prove I'm sincere, energetic and love what I do. Leave me alone. I'm gonna go do it."

What he's going to do, he says, is raise enough money to fund the 1988 Mediterranean expedition independently.

"I'm done with pushing a rock uphill and trying to convince the people through their system that exploration is important. I'm not going to mount another exploration on the government. I'm going to try to get someone to hock their jewels ... "I'm not predicting we'll find a ship down there with the mast and sails and guys still at their oars. We don't know. But I want to go and find out. You know what an explorer's favorite words are? 'Beats the hell out of me. But let's go look.' "

Explorationand discovery, he says, "fill a void, a need in people's lives to have a purpose -- something uplifting and noble. Once in a while, they say, 'Come on, make my day. Tell me something nice.' What we give them isn't hostages or terrorism, or AIDS. It's reassurance that despite all that, life moves on and good things come. It's the epic journey. And I'm living it out."