WHEN ROBERT RATHBUN Wilson was 50 years old, he began to complain to his wife. He had been a physicist, at the top of his profession in the study of elementary particles, for three decades. He was not doing much real physics anymore, and he did not want to merely roost as an administrator at his university laboratory at Cornell.

Wilson had already contributed a number of things to the history of physics, not the least of them was his strong sense of the art in science, the aesthetic dimensions of precision.

When Wilson considered the idea of retiring from physics, he thought about making his hobby of sculpting a full-time avocation, and he indulged in the fantasy of settling in Santa Fe, N. Mex.

Wilson wanted no part in building a particle accelerator, a machine used in physics to break down matter and find the ultimate bits which underlie it all. Building such machines was not real science, he thought. It was work for a technician. Such a job was useful, but lacked creative challenge.

But circumstances did not allow Wilson to escape, and in the next two decades he became known as one of the great machine- builders in the history of physics. He built and directed for 11 years the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Baravia, Ill.

Wilson built the machine -- along with its European twin CERN, one of the two biggest machines of any kind ever built by man -- with a special aesthetic flair which has since spread to many machines throughout physics.

Before Wilson, the machines of physics were made with a chaos of wires and tubes and metal bars. Their color was that of the original gray parts, modified by dirt and grease. But now, at Fermilab and elsewhere, the bodies of accelerators are painted in bright colors.

In the Fermilab machine, the 1,000 great 20-foot magnets that make up the circular, four-mile-long machine are bright blue, with every fourth one painted red. The magnets sit on yellow metal stands, which Wilson designed with decorative corners and scalloped edges. The wires and other paraphernalia are tucked neatly in steel tubes. Wilson's machines are gorgeous.

Fermilab is among the largest of the world's laboratories, and all of its more than 100 buildings, 1,500 workers and perhaps a million tons of equipment were created as support for a single great piece of machinery.

Physicists call it a particle accelerator, newspapers an atom smasher. There are only a dozen of these machines in the world; the one at Fermilab is the most powerful.

Despite its great size, the accelerator has no practical purpose; it manufactures nothing and makes no profit.

"Our work here is primarily spiritual," says Wilson. "We are concerned with the ultimate nature of matter."

At one time, when Wilson and I were riding horses on the broad prairie around the Fermilab machine, we found ourselves heading toward an odd geographic feature about a quarter mile away where the ground rose up in a 20-foot berm. It was under this, in a concrete tunnel, that the great machine was working.

Ther long, earthen mound stretched off to the right and left, curving out of sight. Maps show that it curves around for four miles, completing a circle. The clearest sense of its size comes from photographs taken from a satellite about 300 miles in space. The spreading towns and suburbs of the region appear as ragged blotches. Against this background is one sharp and almost perfect circle. The only feature on earth of such size and regularity, it stands out against the Midwestern landscape like a dandelion in short grass.

"What exactly is the purpose of the berm?" I asked, uncertain of the purpose of this ring of dirt. "Is it to absorb the extra radiation from the machine?"

"No, not really," he said. "Mostly we put it there to accentuate the ring. When we were building it, we looked out and saw that the ring just wasn't very visible. I was really disappointed. You could see where the cooling ponds were, all right, but not the ring itself. So, when we dug out the ponds, I had them pile the dirt here.

I looked at him, and thought of the view from 300 miles in space.

"The berm is for aesthetic reasons?"

"Yes," he said.

Wilson took the aesthetics of building the machine so seriously that the Fermilab became perhaps the only machine of science to be reviewed as an object of art. The New Republic commissioned critic Kenneth Evett to do the review:

"While advocates of the marriage of art and technology go marching down the aisle . . . whom should they meet coming in the opposite direction but Robert R. Wilson, designer and director of the Fermi National Laboratory at Batavi, Ill., offering his creation -- one of the largest, most complex and sophisticated instruments of scientific research on earth -- as his version of that improbable consummation in which technology has become one with art. The inadvertent beauty of functional machines has long been widely noted, but Wilson, while responding to the rigorous necessities of efficiency and experimental precision, has, in addition, consciously designed his laboratory in every particular and on a gigantic scale to satisfy his own aesthetic predilections. The rare product of artistic and scientific aspiration . . . has produced a hybrid creation unprecedented in the history of art or science . . . the ensemble sits there, an island of intense celebration and high civilization amidst the suburban semi-rural expanses of northern Illinois."

Wilson has kept the Fermilab site as wild as possible, wilder than it was in 1967, when the land was owned by farmers. There are 1,800 acres of the site devoted to corn, 650 acres left to pasture, 250 for hay and some thousands still open, including the 11/4- square miles in the center of the ring. There have been four-pound bass caught in Fermilab ponds and eight-pound catfish. During an Audubon bird count one year, there were 40 kinds of birds spotted there. Some of the original Illinois prairie grass, which in the past 200 years has been nearly choked off by strains of European grass, has been replanted and large patches of it are seeded inside the main ring. Grazing there are three-dozen buffalo, which have not flourished there for 800 years.

Wilson began life as a cowboy, working the family ranch near Frontier, Wyo. He made tools and machinery parts himself at the blacksmith forge, rode the range for cattle and read literature and philosophy. He later went to the University of California at Berkeley, hoping to study philosophy. But though he was a poor student in physics at first, he was drawn strongly by the radiation laboratory of the great American Nobelist Ernest O. Lawrence, with its glow and smell of working machinery that somehow was involved with deep questions of the nature of the universe.

For decades, he probed the most elementary particle then known, the proton, to see if it had any internal structure or was a uniform and featureless bit of energy. When he found structure in the proton -- other particles within -- he began probing their nature.

His method, and the method of physics since the beginning of this century, was to speed up the studied particles and smash them into others. The machines that accelerate and collide the particles have been called atom smashers, or particle accelerators, and have grown from boxes a few inches across when Wilson was a student to the great machine called Fermilab now operating at Batavia.

For the past 40 years, the foremost occupation of physics has been to read, like a star map, the arcs and angles and trajectories which emerge from the flash of energy when particles collide in these machines. From this, the elementary structure of matter may be deduced. The method is indirect, and a little obscure, but it is the only way to see the skeleton of the universe, the particles which underlie the flesh of all appearance.

When Wilson was at Los Alamos, he noticed in Santa Fe a small group of old Spanish men who came to the plaza every day, drank and told stories, then went home in the evening. "For my retirement, I wanted to go to Santa Fe to be an alcoholic. These men would sit and drink, and spin marvelous stories. These were not just stories, but were very philosophical, and they would draw fine meanings out of them. It was quite an art. Santa Fe is not too big a city, and I don't think the old men are there anymore. But probably in one of the villages around there. . . ."

Wilson did not go to Santa Fe. Instead, he received an invitation to a conference in Rome, where plans were to be discussed for a new accelerator which would be more than three times bigger than anything then built. First plans called for an energy of more than 200 billion volts; this would be the machine that would become Fermilab.

Wilon was not receptive; he felt he had participated in the building of enough machines, so he replied that he could not attend becuase he was short of money. Soon another letter urged him to attend and offered to pay his way. At this, he decided he could put in necessary appearances at the conference and still have time to oversee the casting of some small female figures in wax he had sculpted and which he wanted to have cast in metal by Italian craftsmen.

It was this which eventually brought him into the planning of the Fermilab accelerator, this and a few rash remarks made while he was at the conference in Rome. He criticized the plans for the new machine, saying they were not presented in a bold and exciting way. An argument followed this nonscientific observation. "Do you think you could do any better?" shouted his friend finally.

"Any day. Any day!" Wilson claimed loudly.

Wilson left Rome for Paris, where he attended drawing sessions at the venerable Left Bank artists' complex, the Grande Chaumiere, where you pay a franc and join in. He was drawing, he says, a beautiful model when he found his mind wandering. During rest periods, he began making drawings, circles and short calculations about the accelerator. He was hooked.

He had spent some time previously in Paris cathedrals, and though at first disappointed by these visits, eventually in the gray stone he recognized something.

"I am sure that the builders of the cathedrals would have said that they were making beautiful sculptures in stone, and that these things were an expression of their religious faith. And I would say that I am doing physics research, and there is another kind of faith . . . but somehow these two things shorthand into the same thing. I was trying to make high energies, and in the cathedrals there was a great energy of height. . . ."

Setting the height of Fermilab, Wilson created something of a permanent gesture of kinship between the cathedral and the accelerator. To determine how high the Fermilab high-rise should be, Wilson rented a helicopter, asking the pilot to climb slowly, stopping every 25 feet so he could judge the view.

"I plotted the aesthetic factor as a function of height," he said, "and I found that it increased rapidly to about 175 feet. Above that height the view was equally good." Wilson set the height of the building at 250 feet, the same as the cathedral at Beauvais.

When Wilson actually was charged with building the machine, things went very well at first, during the period of design and initial construction.

Wilson was riding the crest; the design shaded into construction. He wrote of the design process, recalling his experience with cathedrals:

"I am sure that both the designers of cathedrals and the designers of accelerators proceeded almost entirely on educated intuition guided by aesthetics. . . . Modern accelerators are exceedingly complex machinesscharacterized by large mechanical and electrical forms which are pierced by vacuum pipes, and immersed in magnetic fields in which atoms are jiggled by electrical fields. . . . Informed and informing this complex is a nervous system that consists of ganglia of microprocessors that are governed by a large computer. Now to understand each complicated component and its relationship to the whole would go beyond my own technical knowledge. So how do I go about designing? . . . I find out a little here, by calculation, and a little there. . . . Then I draw those parts of the design on paper. After that I just freely and intuitively draw in pleasant-appearing, smooth connecting lines; lines that cover my ignorance of detail. I keep drawing, correcting here and there by calculations until the accelerator appears that it might work. When the parts and forms have essentially the same relationship that parts of a sculpture should have to the whole, then I am satisfied with the design."

Less than four years after Wilson had walked into a vacant, rented room, set up some folding chairs and a blackboard, and chalked a circle on it to begin Fermilab, the machine was in place.

Then, the elation which had carried the project from the beginning ended abruptly. The machine did not work.

First, it was discovered that the main tube in which protons were to circulate was clogged with debris, from metal shavings to workmen's lunches, interfering with the beam of proton which was supposed to circle it.

Water condensed in the tunnel in the heat of the summer and caused the big magnets to burn out; eventually, some 300 of them exploded before the problem was overcome.

Weary entries in the log book on the night of Jan. 21, 1972, recorded problem with software, readouts, wrong numbers, transmission system going down. Physicist Drasgo Jovanovich reported that Wilson walked into the dim room, produced a small book and read aloud from it a ballad in ancient French:

"Paien s'adubent des osbercs sarazineis Tuit li plusur en sunt dublez en treis; Lacent lor elmes mult bons, sarranguzeis... ."

10 2 He read on, stanza after stanza, through hundreds of lines, his voice echoing down the hall. It was the "Song of Roland," a ballad sung to French soldiers since ancient times to give them courage as they marched to battle.

"We didn't understand the ancient French," says Jovanovich, "but we understood well the occasion." Work in the control room went on through the night and the next day. Then a beam appeared in the main ring, was sustained and grew from 40 billion volts, to 50 billion, to just a hint over 100 billion.

Later, appearing before a congressional committee, Wilson was being questioned by Sen. John Pastore of Rhode Island, who was pressing him for a justification for Fermilab.

"Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of this country?" asked Sen. Pastore.

"No sir, I do not believe so."

"It has no value in that respect," Pastore pursued.

"It has only to do with the respect with which we regard each other, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with, are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do with defending our country except to make it worth defending."