WHO GOT EINSTEIN'S OFFICE? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study By Ed Regis. Addison-Wesley. 316 pp. $17.95

The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., was scientific home to Albert Einstein during the last 20 years of his life. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the making of the first atom bomb, presided over it for years. Fourteen Nobel laureates have worked there. The institute was conceived of, and remains, a haven for genius unshackled by the routine claims of academic life, where mathematicians, physicists and others can freely think, theorize and dream, undistracted by experiments to perform or classes to teach.

The title of Ed Regis' book about the institute, "Who Got Einstein's Office?," refers to the author's youthful fascination with the cluttered desk, equation-covered blackboard and haphazardly arranged books pictured in photographs of Einstein's study taken at the time of his death in 1955. But it's the subtitle that really epitomizes the book -- and forebodes its flaws: "Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study."

This book chooses not to embrace its subject as a whole. It offers only a perfunctory history of the institute. It is not a study of its place in American science. It does not pretend to survey its work in depth. Rather, the author cuts a narrower slice -- one parading the institute's scientific, institutional and human eccentricities in a veritable sea of italics, initial capital letters and literary pyrotechnics.

"To the Institute regulars this stuff {an early computer} was unthinkable," writes Regis in a typical passage. "These Monster Minds had come to Princeton specifically to get away from the crass world of noise and machines, to a place where they could think their deep thoughts in peace and quiet ... and here was Johnny von Neumann turning their unworldly paradise into ... a shop! Using their monastic Institute facilities to build ... an appliance!" Shades of Tom Wolfe, of course. But with the author of "The Right Stuff," typographic and other devices percolate up from the subject matter, while here they seem papered on; you notice them too much.

Regis, an associate professor of philosophy at Howard University and a frequent contributor to Omni, treats the science itself capably. He tells what Einstein was after in seeking a unified field theory embracing both gravity and electromagnetics. He explains the significance of Kurt Go del's Incompleteness Theorem. He introduces us to superstring theory, tells what cellular automata -- computerized complexity generators -- may imply about nature. Buoyed by the author's enthusiasm, readers grounded in science will be propelled through the text -- no small achievement given the abstruseness of the institute's work.

But on reaching the end many will ask, was it worth it?

For starters, Regis himself seems confused about what he thinks about his subject. At the outset, he pictures the institute as an intellectual paradise, a place where extraordinary intellects do extraordinary work. But in an abrupt epilogue with only fragmentary support from the rest of the book, he concludes it's a deeply flawed enterprise unworthy of its reputation, where genius is dulled by isolation from the outside, where astrophysicists have little to say to social scientists and mathematicians have little to say to anyone. What, then, are we to think? The left hand of the book, as it were, seems not to know what the right hand is doing.

The more serious problem, however, is a stylistic one. Scientists, artists and others endowed with special gifts loom as daunting, distant figures; to render them familiar, human and approachable, one must somehow close the gap between them and the reader. Regis, however, has chosen to widen it, placing his subjects on a pedestal to view with awe or wonder. For him, Einstein, Oppenheimer and the others are quirky, idiosyncratic gods, their work otherworldly, their personalities beyond the reach of ordinary understanding. For him, the institute is the "One True Platonic Heaven," Go del its "Grand High Exalted Mystical Ruler." In fact, these towering figures of modern physics and mathematics are formidable. But need the author work so hard to prove it? Need he always be on stage, manipulating his material, reaching for effect?

All this undermines his credibility. If the author must strain so to entertain us, how can we trust him? Was Go del really so neurotic, Oppenheimer really so duplicitous, von Neumann really so high-living? Maybe yes, maybe no. But how can we tell? The same goes for the scientific material, as fascinating and varied as it is. "Is this a dagger which I see before me? ... God knows what it is," opens the author's treatment of fractal geometry. Is the reader getting the straight scoop?

It may be that the author assumes the Institute for Advanced Study is so profoundly uninteresting that readers must be whipped into a frenzy to get them to care about it at all. Every page of "Who Got Einstein's Office?" seems to say so. In the end, the reader is left titillated but not satisfied, lacking a clear sense of what the institute is all about, what it does, what its contribution has been and whether, in the grand scheme of things, its reason for being -- to leave brilliant scientists alone to think -- works or not. The reviewer is the author of "Apprentice to Genius: The Making of a Scientific Dynasty."