FOR nearly a century, the Nobel Prizes have honored the human spirit and intellect, setting the pattern for similar awards in fields from religion to mathematics.
In that time the US has won most of the awards in economics, chemistry, physics, and medicine. The trend continued this week with Robert Lucas Jr. of the University of Chicago winning the economics Nobel and Eric Wieschaus of Princeton sharing the medicine prize with an American and a German.
Yet US dominance is as much an artifact of history as it is a reflection of national scientific prowess. The geographic reach is likely to grow as US lawmakers cut money for basic re-
search and as worldwide communications links such as the Internet make collaboration easier, particularly with researchers in developing countries, several analysts say.
''The American research system is still far, far ahead of everybody else,'' says Philip Schewe, of the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physical Review Letters, the leading journal for publishing results of physics research. ''But in the last 20 years, the percentage of foreign authors in Physical Review Letters has grown from 30 percent to just over 50 percent, even as the journal itself has gotten larger. The proportion of good experiments done in places like Japan, Hungary, and Mexico is growing. The world is opening up.''
This week, Christiane Nuesslein-Volhard became the first German woman to receive a Nobel science prize. Dr. Nuesslein-Volhard shares the prize in medicine with two Americans, Edward Lewis of the California Institute of Technology and Dr. Wieschaus .
The three were honored for their work in identifying several genes deemed responsible for the development of body organs.
Since 1936, US researchers have won outright or shared in 25 of 56 Nobel chemistry prizes, 37 physics prizes, and 40 prizes for medicine or physiology. Of the 27 economics prizes issued since 1969, when the Bank of Sweden first awarded the Nobel in economics, Americans have won or shared in 21 of them.
The US can trace much of its success to Europe's prewar distress. The rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe prompted many leading researchers, such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Enrico Fermi to leave for the US.
After World War II, Washington began an unprecedented buildup in its financial support for science while Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union were struggling to rebuild shattered economies.
''We succeeded in building a large, federally funded science-and-technology establishment,'' says Stephen Brush, a science historian at the University of Maryland at College Park, ''and that's what's been winning us prizes.''
Half of all the US Nobel winners studied with or worked under other Nobel winners, says Harriet Zuckerman, a sociologist of science at the Mellon Foundation in New York and author of a landmark study of Nobel winning scientists.
''It's a very striking finding,'' she says. ''It's a natural attraction of quality to quality.''
Yet for all that success, the Nobels are imperfect indicators of the vitality of a nation's science enterprise, Dr. Zuckerman adds. The prizes tend to lag the breakthrough they honor by an average of 15 years. ''They tell you about the past, not about the present, and certainly not about the future,'' she says. Still, ''their prestige, especially in the eyes of the general public, is unmatched.''
THE public prestige leads to what some analysts call the Nobel Syndrome - trying to capture the prizes' cachet. Last month, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration hitched its space-station project to a Nobel star. NASA announced that a team led by MIT physicist and Nobel laureate Samuel Ting would conduct a high-profile astrophysics experiment on the shuttle and the space station. The project could serve as a political deflector shield against critics who say that the space station is not a science effort but an oversold engineering project.
The phenomenon also is pronounced among universities. ''One of the best ways to put a university on the map is to buy a Nobelist,'' says Ed Conners, professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ''It's like baseball. You can develop the talent, which is expensive and takes time, or you can bring people on who already have bloomed.''
For prizewinners, the Nobel can open fresh opportunities.
Derek Walcott, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, has used the monetary award to open an artists' colony on an island off Jamaica to support budding Caribbean talent.
For Russell Hulse, the Nobel means a chance to ''expand my horizons. I've always had eclectic interests in science, but the world does not always support eclectic interests.''
Dr. Hulse, a physicist at the Plasma Physics Laboratory at Princeton University, shared the 1993 prize with his professor Joseph Taylor for their discovery of the first binary quasar in 1974.
''At the plasma-physics lab, I do computer modeling. It occurred to me that this was something that had value for college and pre-college students,'' says Hulse, one of the few Nobel laureates to earn the award for work done as a graduate student. Working with a professor from another university, ''we now have precalculus students developing computer models that can track the consequences of changes in predator-prey relations.''
The late Richard Feynman, a physics Nobel laureate, once called the prize a nuisance. ''There are moments when I understand what he meant,'' Hulse says. ''Even so, it has been a wonderful honor.''