The $4.4 billion supercollider atom smasher will be the latest, and maybe the last, link in a chain of probes of nature's basic secrets that began with window glass and sealing wax at the University of California 58 years ago. The collider will smash beams of protons into each other at a collision energy of 40 trillion electron volts, 20 times what is now possible at the most powerful machine. The point of the collisions is to see what new particles are produced by this extreme energy, which is in such a small space that it will match the energy density of the postulated "big bang" creation of the universe some 20 billion years ago. The appearance of the right particles will tell scientists whether their latest theories on the origin of the universe are on track. There are no other ways to test these theories. Keeping ahead of the Europeans is what drives U.S. physicists and the government. Energy Secretary John Herrington said, "Most of the leadership in high-energy physics is headed for Europe. We need to keep those people in the United States. The Reagan administration didn't decide to try to build the collider until January 1987, setting off the scramble among states to land an economic plum _ 3,500 or more construction jobs, a permanent staff of 3,000 and a $270 million annual operating budget.