Peter Guthrie Tait (28 April
1831 - 4 July 1901) was a Scottish mathematical physicist, best known for
the seminal energy physics textbook Treatise on Natural
Philosophy, which he co-wrote with Kelvin, and his early
investigations into knot theory, which
contributed to the eventual formation of topology as a mathematical discipline.
Early years
He was
born at Dalkeith.
After
attending the Edinburgh Academy
and University of Edinburgh,
he went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge, graduating as senior
wrangler and first Smith's
prizeman in 1852. As a fellow and lecturer of his college he
remained in Cambridge for two years longer, and then left to take
up the professorship of mathematics at
Queen's College,
Belfast. There he made the acquaintance of
Thomas Andrews, whom he joined in
researches on the density of
ozone and the
action of the electric discharge on
oxygen
and other gases, and by whom he was introduced to Sir
William Rowan Hamilton and
quaternions.
Middle years
In 1860, Tait was chosen to succeed his old master,
JD Forbes, as professor of
natural philosophy at Edinburgh, and this
chair he occupied till within a few months of his death. The first
scientific paper that appears under Tait's name only was published
in 1860. His earliest work dealt mainly with mathematical subjects,
and especially with quaternions, of which he may be regarded as the
leading exponent after their originator, Hamilton. He was the
author of two text-books on them--one an
Elementary Treatise on
Quaternions (1867), written with the advice of Hamilton,
though not published till after his death, and the other an
Introduction to Quaternions (1873), in which he was aided
by
Philip Kelland (1808-1879), who
had been one of his teachers at Edinburgh. In addition, quaternions
was one of the themes of his address as president of the
mathematical section of the
British
Association for the Advancement of Science in 1871.
But he also produced original work in mathematical and experimental
physics. In 1864 he published a short paper on
thermodynamics, and from that time his
contributions to that and kindred departments of science became
frequent and important. In 1871 he emphasized the significance and
future importance of the
principle of the dissipation of
energy (
second law of
thermodynamics).
In 1873 he took thermoelectricity for the subject of his
discourse as Rede lecturer at Cambridge, and in the same year he presented the first sketch
of his well-known thermoelectric diagram before the Royal Society of
Edinburgh.
Two years later researches on "Charcoal Vacua" with
James Dewar led him to see the true dynamical
explanation of the
Crookes
radiometer in the large
mean free
path of the
molecule of the highly
rarefied air. From 1879 to 1888 he was engaged on difficult
experimental investigations, which began with an inquiry into the
corrections required, owing to the great pressures to which the
instruments had been subjected, in the readings of the thermometers
employed by the
Challenger expedition for
observing deep-sea temperatures, and which were extended to include
the compressibility of
water,
glass and
mercury.
This work led to the first formulation of the
Tait equation which is widely used to fit
liquid density to pressure. Between 1886 and 1892 he published a
series of papers on the foundations of the
kinetic theory of gases, the fourth
of which contained what was, according to
Lord Kelvin, the first proof ever given of the
Waterston-
Maxwell theorem
(
equipartition theorem) of the
average equal partition of energy in a mixture of two gases. About
the same time he carried out investigations into impact and its
duration.
Many other inquiries conducted by him might be mentioned, and some
idea may be gained of his scientific activity from the fact that a
selection only from his papers, published by the
Cambridge University Press, fills
three large volumes. This mass of work was done in the time he
could spare from his professorial teaching in the university.
Later years
In addition, he was the author of a number of books and articles.
Of the former, the first, published in 1865, was on the dynamics of
a particle; and afterwards there followed a number of concise
treatises on
thermodynamics, heat,
light, properties of matter and dynamics, together with an
admirably lucid volume of popular lectures on Recent Advances in
Physical Science.
With Lord Kelvin, he collaborated in writing the well-known
Treatise on Natural
Philosophy. "Thomson and Tait," as it is familiarly called
("T and T" was the authors' own formula), was planned soon after
Lord Kelvin became acquainted with Tait, on the latter's
appointment to his professorship in Edinburgh, and it was intended
to be an all-comprehensive treatise on physical science, the
foundations being laid in
kinematics and
dynamics, and the structure
completed with the properties of
matter,
heat,
light,
electricity and
magnetism. But the literary partnership ceased in
about eighteen years, when only the first portion of the plan had
been completed, because each of the members felt he could work to
better advantage separately than jointly. The friendship, however,
endured for the twenty-three years which yet remained of Tait's
life.
Tait collaborated with
Balfour
Stewart in the
Unseen Universe, which was followed by
Paradoxical Philosophy. It was in his 1875 review of
The Unseen Universe, that William James first put forth
his
Will to Believe
Doctrine. Among Tait's articles may be mentioned those which he
wrote for the ninth edition of the
Encyclopaedia
Britannica on Light, Mechanics, Quaternions, Radiation and
Thermodynamics, besides the biographical notices of Hamilton and
Clerk Maxwell.
Chronological order of books
Private life
Tait was an enthusiastic
golfer and, of his
seven children, two,
Frederick
Guthrie Tait (1870-1900) and
John
Guthrie Tait (1861-1945) went on to become gifted amateur
champions. John was an all-round sportsman and represented Scotland
at international level in
rugby union.
Tait himself had, in 1891, invoked the
Magnus effect to explain the influence of
spin on the flight of a
golf ball.
References
External links