Cambridge, Mass. — ''There had been a lively group around here,'' says Jerome B. Wiesner with a chuckle. From his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the former president of MIT thinks back to the late 1950s, before he became science adviser to President John F. Kennedy. He recalls the extended discussions, among thinkers from various disciplines at MIT and Harvard University, as they explored a concept new to all of them. They called it ''arms control,'' and they were looking for ways - perhaps a summer conference, perhaps an institute - to explore it further.
It was an idea searching for a forum.
Enter Daedalus, the newly inaugurated quarterly journal of the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Its editor at the time, Gerald Holton, a Harvard physicist and historian of science, had defined it as an interdisciplinary periodical designed to give ''the intellectual community a strong voice of its own'' and to provide a medium ''through which leading scholars in all fields can address one another.''
It was a forum searching for ideas.
To understand the forces that brought Daedalus and arms control together in a groundbreaking 1960 issue is to begin to grasp how new ideas are fostered and disseminated in contemporary American society. And to trace the history of that 25-year-old periodical - whose list of contributors reads like a ''Who's Really Who'' of Western society's intellectual life - is to see both the difficulties and the successes of bringing scholars and public figures together under the umbrella of a single broad subject.
Like many things in the intellectual community, Daedalus is a bundle of contradictions:
* A scholarly journal, it has no particular discipline or field.
* Planned and written by ad hoc committees, it publishes timely views on cutting-edge subjects - although it typically takes 18 months to produce each of its four yearly issues.
* It is rarely available on newsstands and little known to the public - although its issues have turned up as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selections.
* Its 20,000 subscribers, paying $16 a year, cover only about half its operating costs - and it carries no advertising.
Even its name suggests the often-conflicting impulses within the scholarly community. Daedalus, the ingenious Athenian craftsman of Greek mythology, was imprisoned in a labyrinth of his own making - and escaped by rising above it on makeshift wings.
From his book-strewn third-floor office at Harvard's century-old Jefferson Physics Laboratory, Dr. Holton comments on the symbolic importance of the journal's name - and on the maze design, drawn from an ancient Greek coin, that adorns its cover.
In scholarship, he says, ''You've got to be a specialist - you've got to know your corner of the labyrinth extremely well.'' But he adds that ''you have to have occasions when you're lifted up and look down on the entire labyrinth.''
''It's required for the very sanity of the intellectual,'' he says, ''that he feel in some touch with the people down the hall and on the other side of the ocean'' - especially with those working in different fields.
The journal, by keeping its focus on what Holton calls ''this double function'' of both working within and rising above its subjects, constantly poses a central question: What is the role of the intellectual in society? Most people, he says, ''know all about the sports people and the people of entertainment and the politicos.'' But they know little about the thinkers, he adds, and keep asking themselves, ''Who are they?''
''Daedalus is asking that same question,'' he explains, ''but from inside - (the journal) was invented as a device to give introspection to that group.''
Despite its introspective goal, the results have often been highly pragmatic - and sometimes even prophetic. Two volumes on ''The Negro American'' in late 1965 and early '66 helped shape President Lyndon B. Johnson's thinking on civil rights. ''Toward the Year 2000'' came out in 1967 - well before the current crop of futurists began writing on the subject. At a time when public concern over youth was largely focused on drugs, ''Twelve to Sixteen: Early Adolescence'' ( 1971) looked deep into the youth culture as a whole. ''The Oil Crisis: In Perspective'' (1975) took what Peter Braestrup, editor of The Wilson Quarterly, praises as ''a calm look at how everyone behaved'' on a crucial issue and went ''against the hasty conventional wisdom'' of a generally alarmist press. And in 1977, ''Doing Better and Feeling Worse: Health in the United States,'' took a long and critical gaze at the medical profession.
Such thoroughly American pragmatism, says Holton, traces its roots to the founding of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1780 by a group that included Samuel Adams and John Hancock. In those days, Holton notes, ''arts'' meant ''the useful arts'' - the applied and practical fields - while ''sciences'' included the humanities as well as science. ''Right from the beginning,'' he adds, the academy's goals were ''both abstract and concrete'' - in contrast, he says, to the ''much more exclusively intellectual'' tenor of Britain's Royal Society.
By World War II, however, the publications of this exclusive academy had become somewhat redundant. In the mid-'50s - under a committee that included Harlow Shapley (whom Holton calls ''the Copernicus of our time''), Philipp Frank (Albert Einstein's successor at the University of Prague), humanist Howard Mumford Jones, and geologist Kirtley F. Mather - the academy's publication became a forum for great talks given by academicians.
Out of that grew Daedalus - for which an editor was needed. ''I was 34,'' recalls Holton, ''and therefore didn't know how to say no.'' His wife, Nina, was an editor at the Boston-based publishing house of Houghton Mifflin. ''We adopted it, the two of us, as a family activity,'' he says. Adopting it meant formulating its guidelines: that each issue of the journal should be on a single theme, that each should show a whole range of conflicting views, and that each should address itself to a public which, though not large, would reach well beyond the membership of the academy (currently 2,326 fellows). ''Each of these issues (was to be like) a semester course for our readers,'' he says, showing them ''what is now intellectually exciting.''
No one was quite prepared, however, for the synergism that would develop when a forum like Daedalus met an idea like arms control. With an editor's instinct for important issues - ''you smell out what is going on in the wings, and you drag it to center stage,'' says Holton - the youthful editor approached Professor Wiesner and asked him to help bring together a series of essays on the topic for the journal.
The result: a collection of 22 articles in the fall of 1960 by authors ranging from Edward Teller (the so-called ''father of the A-bomb'') to Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, and including Wiesner, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, Kenneth Boulding, Saville Davis, and Erich Fromm.
Brown University's Prof. Stephen R. Graubard, the current editor (since 1961) of Daedalus, recalls the hubbub. ''We did something we would never have dreamed of before,'' he says; ''we actually printed 20,000 copies. It sold out. Then we had it selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection. And we published it in book form.'' In those days, Wiesner recalls, it was ''the only book people had to look at'' on a subject that today generates some 150 books a year.
In his elegant office under the broad eaves of the academy's headquarters in Cambridge, Professor Graubard explains the procedure (unique, he says, in the publishing industry) used to prepare each issue. Once a subject has been defined and an editor for that subject chosen - often a lengthy task, involving much discussion with the editorial board - invitations are sent to a dozen or more scholars and public figures identified as leading thinkers on the topic. Each has nine months to draft an article. Then, says Graubard, ''we bring them together and have them all discuss each other's drafts, so that they have a real , critical review of everything that's been written.''
They then go home, rewrite, and submit final drafts. Total elapsed time is normally 18 months - far longer than needed by most magazines, but shorter than is required to prepare most serious books. ''I know no journal that really does this much planning,'' says Graubard.
Such planning is expensive. It includes the honorariums paid to the authors - often in the range of $1,000 each, and always identical for each author within a single issue regardless of their reputations. And it includes funding the conferences. Planning and writing an issue can cost about $70,000, Graubard says. Printing and distribution costs that much again. Since subscription income covers only the production costs, Graubard must seek foundation support for the planning. The resulting $500,000 annual budget produces a journal in which, he says, ''the academy, happily, has not had to invest its own funds.''
These days, however, the journal faces some financial constraints as foundation funding becomes harder to find. Some subjects, of course, are more expensive to plan than others: A forthcoming issue on Australia (the journal's first on a single country) involves substantial air fares for conference participants. For other subjects, the costs show up in production: Serious work in the arts requires expensive photographic plates, while detailed mathematical studies incur substantial costs in typesetting. The academy is now planning an endowment drive to help ensure the journal's future.
But the financial constraints may have already taken a toll. Some observers note that the periodical is less free to experiment and explore new areas than it once was. Stanford University's Seymour M. Lipset, a former Daedalus contributor, notes that ''I don't hear people talking much about it out here.'' He adds that ''I have the impression that it has less impact today than it used to.'' The decline, he feels, may be attributable to its generalist, interdisciplinary approach in an age when ''the specialized (periodicals) do better.''
It still has its admirers. ''I think it's excellent,'' Jean Mayer, Tufts University president and academy member, says simply. Dr. Vartan Gregorian, head of the New York Public Library, essentially agrees - but adds that the quality depends on the editor selected for each issue.
And the editor of another scholarly quarterly, while praising Daedalus's past record, notes that ''their problem is that their editor is not allowed to edit'' and that the resulting product is ''very uneven.'' He adds that ''it's not a magazine I reach for right away.''
That sort of popularity, however, has never been the goal of Daedalus - although Graubard admits that he would like to see the journal on more newsstands in smaller cities in the US and overseas. A year ago, reversing the periodical's cost-cutting drift toward smaller typeface and larger pages, he reworked the format to produce what he calls a more ''handsome'' and less forbidding appearance - even though the changes added some $10,000 to his annual budget.
Graubard is also hoping that future topics will find a broader readership. Unlike some of the more specialist subjects chosen in the past (''On Evidence and Inference,'' 1958, for example, or ''Fiction in Several Languages,'' 1966), recent issues have focused on subjects of broad and immediate concern. The two-part series on education (''America's Schools: Public and Private'' and ''America's Schools: Portraits and Perspectives'') appeared in 1981, well ahead of the current flurry of reports on the quality of the schools. And last year's issue on ''Print and Video Culture'' inquired into the much-discussed relationship between reading and television.
Currently under discussion are publishing issues on weapons in space, the intellectual consequences of the computer, the political and social consequences of an aging society, the question of whether schools have different kinds of problems in different regions of the country, and the need to rethink the office of the presidency in light of the 1987 bicentennial of the US Constitution - ''a new series of, not Federalist papers, but Daedalus papers,'' says Graubard.
Whatever the subject, however, Graubard insists that the purpose of Daedalus will remain constant over its second quarter-century.''What I think it continues to assert,'' he says, ''is that we live in a very specialized age, but that a great number of us do search for an understanding of problems outside our own special fields and interests.
''There are still a great many people who are generalists,'' he continues, ''who (can) write up to people instead of down to people - not just trying to simplify things.
''We think that people really do want to understand complexity.''