A Layman’s Intro to Material Science

Joseph Mellor
40 min readAug 9, 2021

You’ll only need a middle-school understanding of physics and chemistry to follow this article. I’ll cover everything but the math.

A person walking on a beach next to a rusted ship. The rust is so severe that it seems to have rusted a large hole in the ship.
Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash

There are few transformations more radical in nature than the rusting of iron. Corrosion turns iron from a shiny, strong, malleable conductor into a dull, weak, brittle insulator. What I find particularly interesting about the corrosion in metals is that the cause is so simple. While complex systems allow for radical transformations in organisms and supernovae, corrosion happens through the simple addition of certain elements. You expose iron to oxygen and water and it becomes rusty.

In this article, I want to discuss how changes in chemical compositions lead to changes in the physical properties of a material. As I have the most scientific experience with solid materials, I will focus on solids. By the end of this article, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What makes something a metal?
  • Why does rust degrade the conductivity of steel?
  • Why is rust reddish-orange but steel silvery?
  • Why is steel an ideal construction material as long as it doesn’t become rusty?

I’ll also cover materials that are not rust and iron, including plastics, diamonds, etc.



Joseph Mellor

BS in Physics, Math, and CS with a minor in High-Performance Computing. You can find all my articles at https://josephmellor.xyz/articles/.