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Peter Guthrie Tait (1831 - 1901):
Academic: mathematician and physicist

Peter Guthrie Tait

Tait was one of the foremost mathematical physicists of his time, and worked with was friends with of the leading mathematicians of his time, some of whom he came to know during his time at Queen’s College, Belfast (now Queen’s University, Belfast).


He was originally from Dalkeith, Scotland, and grew up in Edinburgh, where he was educated at Edinburgh Academy, the University of Edinburgh and Cambridge University, where he was Senior Wrangler in Mathematics, that is, he gained first class honours and was placed first in his class. In 1854 he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the relatively new (1845) Queen’s College Belfast, where he made some significant acquaintances. One of these was Thomas Andrews, the Belfast-born scientist who was Vice-President and Professor of Chemistry at the College, and as a scientist had a particular interest in the volumetric relations of ozone and the compression of gases. Tait helped Andrews in his experimental work, which gave him a keen interest in Chemistry. Tate said later of Thomas Andrews, who came to a good friend: “I cannot be sufficiently thankful, that my appointment to Queen’s College at the age of 23 brought me for six years into almost daily association with such a friend.”


Two other acquaintanceships he made in Belfast were with Sir William Rowan Hamilton, the famous mathematician well-known for his interest in quaternions (non-commutative division algebraic formulas); and Belfast-born William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, with whom he would publish jointly in 1867 their Treatise on Natural Philosophy. The work was said to be “epoch-making”, and to have “created a revolution in scientific development” as it proved that energy was the fundamental physical entity and that its conservation was its predominant and all-controlling property.


In 1860 he moved to Edinburgh (having got married in Belfast) to the University Chair in Natural Philosophy. On his appointment it was said of him that “there is another quality which is desirable in a Professor in a University like ours and that is the power of oral exposition proceeding on the supposition of imperfect knowledge or even total ignorance on the part of pupils.” In other words, he was a highly competent teacher.


Over the course of his career Tait published 365 articles and 22 books – on a wide range of scientific subjects (though he was also a religious man who wrote with the physicist Balfour Stewart, The Unseen Universe (1875) to, as it was put, “overthrow materialism by a purely scientific argument.” Due to the popularity of this he subsequently wrote a Paradoxical Philosophy (1878).


Frederick Tait’s third of four sons, was one of the most prominent golfers of his day, becoming the leading amateur golfer in 1893, winning the Amateur Championship in 1896 and 1898., placing third in the Open Championship in 1896 and 1897 and was leading amateur in the Open six times. A street in St Andrews, the Scottish town as the “Home of Golf” is named after him. He was later killed in the Boer War, sadly predeceasing his father. A keen golfer himself, Tait published several special studies on the trajectory of golf balls. Another son played rugby for Scotland.


Lord Kelvin, his friend, said of Tait: “I remember Tait once remarking that nothing but science is worth living for. It was sincerely said, but Tait himself proved it to be not true. Tait was a great reader. He would get Shakespeare, Dickens, and Thackeray off by heart. His memory was wonderful. What he once read sympathetically he ever after remembered. Thus he was always ready with delightful quotations, and these brightened our hours of work. For we did heavy mathematical work, stone breaking was not in it.

Born: 28 April 1831
Died: 4 July 1901
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann

O'Connor, John J.; Robertson, Edmund F., @ www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Tait.html ; Moody and Beckett: Queen’s, Belfast 1845-1949; www.ulsterhistory.co.uk; Walker and McCreary: Degrees of Exellence; http://www.maths.ed.ac.uk/~aar/knots/taitbib.htm