The first word came in a Japanese financial newspaper in January: Hiroshi Maeda of the University of Tokyo had found a superconductor that broke all previous temperature records.

While legions of physicists struggled to decipher the Japanese and to duplicate Maeda's feat, two newcomers at the University of Arkansas announced they had smashed his record.A few days later, IBM scientists fiddling with the Arkansas superconductor in San Jose, Calif., hit a high-temperature mark that still stands.

All the pandemonium began with the January 1986 discovery by two IBM scientists in Zurich, Switzerland, that a complicated mixture of lanthanum, barium, copper and oxygen could carry electricity with no resistance at 396 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

In the exotic landscape of physics, that was terribly warm. Before the "Zurich oxide," as it's sometimes called, superconductors worked only at temperatures colder than minus 418 degrees, about 42 degrees above absolute zero.

The IBM discovery impressed the Stockholm crowd. The scientists, K. Alex Mueller and J. Georg Bednorz, received the 1987 Nobel Prize - one of the fastest on record.

Superconductivity almost seems to violate nature's laws. When electricity passes through ordinary conductors, some is inevitably converted into heat. Sometimes a lot of it - as in your toaster.

But not in superconductors. They carry electricity with no resistance - and no heat loss. None.

That's more than a scientist's idea of a parlor trick. These brittle ceramic metals could lead to zero-resistance electric power lines, exotic energy storage devices and other wonders. And no story on superconductivity would be complete without a mention of super-fast trains magnetically levitated over superconducting rails.

The truth is, no one is quite sure where and when superconductors will turn up outside physics labs. Economists may be better forecasters than physicists.

Mag-lev trains might work in lab tests, but who will pay to build them? Are utilities going to rip out serviceable power lines to put up superconductors? Not if they have to double or triple your electric bill to pay for it.

President Reagan told a conference last year, "There are predictions of high-speed trains levitated above their tracks, supercomputers on a single silicon chip, cheaper and more effective medical imaging devices."

Reagan said it's "our business to discover ways to turn our dreams into history as soon as possible," but he won't foot the bill, either. The National Science Foundation budget for condensed-matter physics, which includes superconductivity, is $37.2 million this year, up just 0.5 percent.

Such worldly concerns aside, physicists are silly with excitement.

"Somebody described scientists like pigeons," said Brian Schwartz, a physicist at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. "You throw bread here and everybody pecks here. Then you throw bread over there and everybody pecks there."

The record holders are the IBM researchers, led by Paul Grant, who pushed the threshhold to 234 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Grant and company surpassed the report by Maeda of superconductivity onset at minus 243 degrees. Maeda started with copper oxide - or copper and oxygen, the common denominators in nearly all the new superconductors - and added bismuth, strontium and calcium.

Earlier compounds had contained yttrium instead of bismuth. Physicists soon were wearing buttons that read "Sell yttrium - buy bismuth."

"The last 18 months have been the most exciting in my life," Grant said at the March meeting of the American Physical Society in New Orleans a year after the so-called "Woodstock of physics" in New York.

That was when most physicists got their first reports on the new superconductors. "That was a once-in-a-lifetime event. It was incredible. Incredible. What else can I say?" said Grant, echoing others who were there.

A "Woodstock II" session was held this year, with late reports on the superconductors discovered in Tokyo and Arkansas.

One of the stars was Arkansas' Allen Hermann. He and Zhengzhi Sheng discovered the thallium-barium-copper-oxygen superconductor (to which they later added calcium) that holds the high temperature record set by Grant.

Hermann and Sheng reported superconductivity at minus 238 degrees, earning them a momentary record until Grant pushed their compound further. They since have matched his mark.

How high the temperature record will go is anybody's guess. Scattered reports of superconductivity at room temperature haven't been confirmed, but many researchers believe room-temperature superconductivity may be possible.

Not all the action is in the glamorous search for new superconductors and the race for higher temperatures, however. Theorists - the armchair physicists whose job is to think, not to concoct - think they are beginning to understand how the new superconductors work.

The key seems to be the arrangement of the copper oxide. Electron microscopes have shown that the copper and oxygen atoms arrange themselves in planes. The other elements serve as spacers, sandwiched between the planes.

In some compounds, each plane is separated from its neighbors. In others the planes are paired, and in the newest the planes occur in threes.

The more planes, the higher the temperature at which superconductivity occurs. At the moment, that's a mere observation.

"If we can go to four layers, we should be able to go to higher transition temperatures," said Robert Hazen of the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C.

The next question to be addressed is why it should be so, but physicists at last have a direction to go that's more than hunch, which is how they got where they are. Anyone can do it: Melt a few elements together, let the stew harden, cool it to frigid temperatures and see what happens.

Hazen calls that "shake and bake" science, or "cook and look."

Of course, not everything is as simple as stacking planes. Just when physicists had become comfortable thinking about planes, a superconductor with no stacked planes was discovered. The mixture of potassium, barium, bismuth and oxygen became superconducting at about 406 degrees below zero, according to its discoverers at AT&T's Bell Laboratories.

It's not a contender in the high-temperature race. But Paul Fleury, one of the discoverers, said, "There's a whole new ballfield that's opened up now."

On another ballfield, Stuart Wolf of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., has produced a lanthanum-copper-oxygen superconductor with a simpler structure, but similar to the other copper-containing superconductors.

It's a kind of superconductor building block, and Wolf believes it's a contender. He thinks it could go superconducting at higher temperatures than Hermann's thallium mix, and he's out to prove it.

His first tests show superconductivity at minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit, but he's betting he can reach a toasty 100 degrees below zero.

There is a catch. Wolf's simple superconductor isn't simple to make. It must be cooked at 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit and squeezed at 65,000 times normal atmospheric pressure. Fortunately for Wolf, once the material is made it can be cooled and studied at normal temperatures and pressures.

"Nature's been kind - it's done something we never expected," said Schwartz. "We never thought we'd be operating at these temperatures in our lifetime - or ever."