Chicago — Downstairs, mobs of youngsters on spring break from school are taking advantage of all the do-it-yourself exhibits at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. One boy imitates Tarzan's jungle call into a phone receiver while he and his friends watch the resulting wavy line on an oscilloscope. ''Look at that line move!'' they say.
Meanwhile, upstairs at the museum, which happens to be celebrating its 50th anniversary, a prestigious group of academic and industrial scientists considers the broader questions of how far the sciences have progressed in the last 50 years and whether technology is having the positive effects on society it is supposed to have.
Everyone present, including five Nobel Prize winners, agrees that the gains have been extraordinary. These, after all, were the decades that produced television, radio astronomy, the splitting of the atom, development of nuclear energy, and landing of a man on the moon.
But concerns about the mixed benefits of some scientific gains and about whether or not the public now trusts technology too much kept the conference from becoming merely a pat on the back for science.
As recently as 50 years ago, notes Melvin Kranzberg, a technology historian at the University of Georgia, all natural scientists assumed their advances would benefit mankind and be welcomed. Now with public concern over nuclear weapons and environmental pollution rising, they know that their achievements can often have unexpected human and social consequences.
Daniel Kevles, a professor of history at California Institute of Technology, says technology is not to blame. It is the uses to which technology has been put and America's ''ambivalent'' attitude toward these uses and modern society's values that are to blame. ''What man needs to control in the modern world is not so much science and technology, but himself,'' Dr. Kevles says.
Still, Daniel Yankelovich, chairman of Yankelovich, Skelly & White Inc., says that surveys both by his firm and the National Science Foundation show that well over two-thirds of the public now thinks the benefits from technological advances outweigh the problems. He says that the view, held by many in the 1970s , of technology as necessarily dehumanizing and opposed to the forces of nature has now given way to a more positive and sophisticated view. Most no longer think, as the majority did in the 1950s, for instance, that science can find a way to solve all human problems.
Beyond the obvious mixed impact of some scientific gains, the public needs to realize that there is an important difference between scientific knowledge on the one hand and the power to make policy decisions on the other, says Leo Marx, a professor of cultural history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Having chemical expertise, for instance, he says, does not necessarily mean that US toxic waste dumps will be cleaned up. And, he says, the tendency of many to trust natural science and technology for solutions to society's gravest problems can be dangerous. Scientists and engineers, for instance, should themselves make it abundantly clear, he says, that, contrary to the hopes of many, they see almost no way that a reliable defense against nuclear weapons could be devised.
''Nothing,'' Dr. Marx says, ''could be more important right now than to persuade the world that science and technology alone cannot save us.''
Other key topics at the conference were: How can the public be kept more accurately informed about scientific developments? How far will technology go in taking over American jobs?
''It does look as though the simple mental and physical operations (of today's workers) are likely to be driven out of the marketplace by machines,'' says Robert Frosch, a vice-president of General Motors Corporation Research Laboratories.
But David Joravsky, chairman of the Northwestern University history department, says that despite gains in artificial intelligence work with robots, he doubts machines will ever be able to show the same capacity for thought and feeling human beings do. ''Robots calculate . . . but no one has come anywhere near developing a machine that has feelings.''