"Nature abhors a vacuum."

Benedict Spinoza (1632-77)The vast, empty western desert of Utah holds a peculiar fascination for people who seem compelled to put something, anything, into those vacant acres. Usually, the urge is to plant very large and highly technological projects, although even a waste dump will do in a pinch.

So far, the vacuumlike emptiness of the Utah desert has remained mostly isolated as one imaginative plan after another has fallen by the wayside. But people keep coming up with eye-popping proposals.

The latest bid to make use of the West Desert is a state invitation to the California Institute of Technology to build a giant gravitational wave observatory on nine square miles near Skull Valley. The idea is to test a portion of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, which says that gravity from giant objects in space should be detectable on Earth.

Aided by $47 million in start-up funds from Congress, the project would build a pair of stainless steel vacuum tubes, each three miles long, at a site in the West and another pair in the eastern United States.

This compulsion to offer up the des-ert for super-science started back in the mid-1960s, when Utah officials put together a sophisticated plan for a giant spaceport near Wendover. The idea was to take 40 million acres and build a landing site for future spacecraft, the first inland spaceport for the yet-unbuilt shuttle. Previous splashdowns had been done in the ocean near Florida.

Alas, the idea came to naught. The landing site ended up at Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert.

Ah, but there was more to come. In 1979, then-President Jimmy Carter proposed a gigantic shell game in the Utah and Nevada desert involving 4,600 shelters and 200 MX missiles to be shuffled among them on a rail system. The scheme was killed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Not to despair. In 1987, Utah entered a bid for the $6 billion super-conducting supercollider - a 52-mile ring of gigantic underground mag-nets to explore the atomic substructure of atoms - spending $1 million in an effort to attract the project to the West Desert. But Texas got it.

In 1989, the Air Force wanted a $4 billion electronic battlefield in the western desert, an idea happily endorsed by state officials. But budget problems and a changing world political climate scuttled the project in 1990.

Things were getting desperate. The best anyone could come up with were several proposals for waste incinerators, hardly glamorous science and technology. But the gravity wave proj-ect has rescued high-tech dreams for the empty desert once again. And Utah's West Desert keeps beckoning and beckoning.