Identifying intellectual dark matter: for more transformative discoveries, we need to embrace scientific ambiguity

11 Pages Posted: 29 Nov 2023

See all articles by Florian Metzler

Florian Metzler

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Jonah Messinger

University of Cambridge; The Breakthrough Institute

Date Written: November 6, 2023


The transistor effect is one of the most impactful discoveries in human history. Transistors control everything from our smartphones to power plants and airplane wings. Today there are concerns that we are lacking discoveries of the same order. Some economists have argued that the reason might be that great ideas are getting harder to find. But a look at the history of major discoveries suggests a different explanation: our problem today is that we are getting worse at engaging with new ideas in their early stages—and in particular, we cannot tolerate and constructively engage with periods of extended scientific ambiguity that often precede impactful discoveries.

Intellectual dark matter is a term used by the quantum computing pioneer Michael Nielsen to describe early-stage scientific ideas whose value is not (yet) widely recognized. Here, we describe the critical prehistories that enabled the discoveries of the transistor and of nuclear fission. Due to the ambiguities surrounding them, both ideas were initially controversial and even disreputable -- examples of intellectual dark matter. Theses ideas required science managers like Bell Labs' Mervin Kelly who constructively engaged with the ambiguity surrounding them instead of prematurely embracing or dismissing them.

We contrast these two historical cases with two contemporary cases of claims that, if true, promise transformative technologies: room-temperature superconductors and low-energy nuclear reactions. We observe low tolerance among contemporary scientists and observers for prolonged ambiguities surrounding such claims and we ask whether these patterns may be getting in the way of major discoveries. We argue that training science managers with a penchant for identifying intellectual dark matter would greatly increase the productivity of science today and enable more transformative discoveries.

Keywords: intellectual dark matter, ambiguity, discovery, transistor, nuclear fission, superconductivity, low-energy nuclear reactions

Suggested Citation

Metzler, Florian and Messinger, Jonah, Identifying intellectual dark matter: for more transformative discoveries, we need to embrace scientific ambiguity (November 6, 2023). Available at SSRN: or

Florian Metzler (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
50 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

Jonah Messinger

University of Cambridge ( email )

Trinity Ln
Cambridge, CB2 1TN
United Kingdom

The Breakthrough Institute ( email )

Berkeley, CA
United States

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