Peter Guthrie Tait

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Peter Guthrie Tait

Peter Guthrie Tait (born April 28, 1831 in Dalkeith , Midlothian , Scotland , † July 4, 1901 in Edinburgh ) was a Scottish physicist .

life and work

After losing his father at the age of 6, Tait grew up in Edinburgh with his uncle John Ronaldson, a banker passionate about science. In 1841 he entered the Edinburgh Academy, which at the same time James Clerk Maxwell attended a class above him. Tait was a very good student, both in classical languages ​​and mathematics, where he received a school award in 1846 before Maxwell (Maxwell won the following year). In 1847 he attended the University of Edinburgh with Maxwell , but moved to Cambridge in 1848 , where he was Senior Wrangler in the Tripos in 1852 . In the same year he won the Smith Prize . Tait became a Fellow of the Peterhouse at Cambridge University and began writing a book on dynamics that appeared in 1856. In 1854 he became professor of mathematics at Queens College , Belfast . There his interest in quaternions began , about which he began a correspondence with their inventor William Rowan Hamilton , with whom he also became friends. As a result, Tait became an influential proponent of the application of the theory of quaternions in physics in numerous essays and several books. He later had a dispute over this with Oliver Heaviside and Josiah Willard Gibbs , both proponents of the vector concept that is commonly used today. The present-day form of the Nabla symbol comes from Tait as an upside-down delta.

In 1860 he succeeded James David Forbes as holder of the chair of natural philosophy in Edinburgh, to which he was appointed in competition with Maxwell, because his more energetic demeanor and his teaching skills were valued higher. A well-known textbook of the 19th century was that of Tait together with William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) Treatise of Natural Philosophy from 1867 (several volumes were planned, only the first appeared), in which they the energy concept and the principle of energy conservation in put the focus. The work of Hermann Helmholtz also had a great influence on Tait , especially his work on vortex motion from 1858, which Tait translated. Tait tested Helmholtz's theory (especially the stability of the rings in near-collisions) with smoke rings, and Thomson was so impressed that he came up with the idea of ​​describing atoms as ring systems with knots. This idea, curious from today's perspective, led Tait to start working on knot theory . 1876-1877 he published several works in which he classified nodes according to the number of crossings in two-dimensional projection (with up to 7 crossings), which he expanded from 1883 in collaboration with Thomas Kirkman to up to 11 crossings. Tait checked the tables sent to him by Kirkman for equivalent nodes using intuitive methods which later turned out to be correct (for the tables he checked up to 10 crossings, he gave up on Kirkman's table with 11 crossings, which contained 1581 nodes). Tait also wrote a paper on the trajectory of golf balls in 1896 (his son Frederick was a leading amateur golfer; he volunteered with the Black Watch in the Boer War in 1900) and dealt with kinetic gas theory .

From 1860 Tait was a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh , whose secretary he was also from 1879 to 1901. He was never a member of the London Royal Society , but received their Royal Medal in 1886 .

Publications (selection)

  • An elementary treatise on quaternions , Cambridge (England): University Press, 1890
  • Properties of matter , Edinburgh: Adam and Chas. Black, 1885
  • Heat , London, Macmillan, 1884
  • Lectures on some recent advances in physical science with a special lecture on force , London, Macmillan and Co., 1876

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