Two IBM scientists whose work last year touched off a worldwide race to develop high-temperature superconductors were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics yesterday.

J. Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Mueller, of IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory, won the prize barely a year after discovering superconductivity in a new class of ceramics at temperatures higher than had previously been considered possible.

The Royal Swedish Academy, which selects the winners, also awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry yesterday, citing two Americans and a Frenchman for determining how to make relatively simple molecules that mimic the functions of far more complex molecules produced by living cells. {Story on Page A5.}

In awarding the physics prize, the academy said the work of Bednorz, 37, and Mueller, 60, served as "the introduction to an explosive development in science" that set off an "avalanche" of advances in producing better superconductors at higher temperatures. Eventually, researchers hope that room-temperature superconductors will be found.

Superconductors can carry energy without the wasteful resistance found in normal conductors. Finding a practical superconductor could revolutionize most uses of electricity and save billions of dollars in energy costs by permitting electricity to flow freely without the losses that are unavoidable in conventional wires.

Mueller was in Naples yesterday for a scientific meeting. As soon as he heard the news, he and his wife hurriedly returned to Zurich. Bednorz began the day as he normally does, conducting an experiment in their lab.

While superconductor research is highly competitive and advances are now widely heralded, the field was obscure only three years ago when Mueller and Bednorz began their efforts.

"I was an outsider, a curiosity," Mueller said in an interview earlier this year. "My employers let me do what I wanted, but they thought they were indulging an intellectual whim. Last November, I gave the first talk about our work to a German audience.

"Germans are always very polite, but they were thinking in the back of their minds, 'This Alex Mueller, maybe he gets a little bit older and confused.'

"The next week Georg gave a talk in Berlin," he continued. "And he came back with the same reaction."

Within months, however, thousands of physicists, chemists and materials scientists on three continents were working around the clock attempting to improve upon Bednorz and Mueller's original discoveries.

When superconductivity was discovered by a Dutch physicist in 1911, scientists believed that it would occur only near absolute zero, the theoretical point at which all molecular motion stops.

At that temperature only a few metals were found to be superconductors. Until recently their use has been limited to highly sophisticated medical imaging machines and other expensive technology that could justify their tremendous costs.

In order for superconductors to work, electrons must flow in unhindered pairs through the lattice of molecules in the metals. Cooling them was cumbersome and complicated.

Although they tried for years, scientists could only inch the temperature up slowly, from 4 Kelvins, or degrees centigrade above absolute zero, in 1911, to 23K in 1973. Most physicists thought it would never go much higher.

But last year, Bednorz and Mueller found a class of ceramic oxides that start superconducting at 35K, still very cold but far above previous records.

From that point, the discoveries have come rapidly throughout the year. Groups of researchers at a number of labs around the world have reported temperatures above 90K, or minus 292 degress Fahrenheit, and several have seen small hints of superconductivity far above that. Superconductors at 90K have many practical applications because they can be cooled by liquid nitrogen, which is cheap and easy to use and store.

Widespread practical uses for high-temperature superconductors remain far off, but many scientists expect that they will be used first in the circuits of computers, whose speed is limited by the heat of resistance in their wires.

The award to Mueller and Bednorz represents the fourth time that research into superconductivity has won Nobel Prizes.

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes received the prize in 1913 for his discovery of the phenomenon. Three Americans, John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer, won the 1972 prize for their theories. Brian Josephson won the 1973 prize for his work in the field.

And it was the second year in a row that the physics prize went to the IBM Zurich lab. In 1986, Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer won for inventing a microscope that permitted surfaces to be examined at the atomic level.

THE PRIZE-WINNING DISCOVERY:

Superconductors are everyday materials that can carry electricity without losing energy. Electrical current travelling through the transmission lines used today encounters resistance, so energy is lost in the form of heat. Superconducting materials offer no resistance to the electricity. Consequently, no energy is lost.

Georg Bednorz and K. Alex Mueller discovered new superconductors that function at higher, more reasonable temperatures, continuing a scientific search for success that began in 1911. (This should be at 4.2

K) 1911: The first superconductors are demonstrated using a liquid helium-type cooling medium. They are expensive and difficult to handle. (This should be at 23

K) 1973: Niobium compounds are found to be superconductors. (This should be at 77 K) November 1986: Mueller and Bednorz report that ceramic superconductors will function at temperatures significantly higher than any previously found. (This should be at 92 K) February 1987: Further advances push the temperature at which superconductivity is reported much higher, setting off a worldwide race to develop practical superconducting materials.