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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 61.djvu/169

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PETER GUTHRIE TAIT.

PETER GUTHRIE TAIT.
BY C. K. EDMUNDS,

JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY.

NEXT to Lord Kelvin, perhaps the most notable figure among the physicists of Great Britain during the past forty years has been Peter Guthrie Tait, professor of natural philosophy in the University of Edinburgh since 1860. One of the first to establish laboratory instruction in Great Britain, and beginning his career at a time when the now prevalent ideas of energy were yet unborn, he has had much to do with the shaping of scientific thought and education during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

He was born at Dalkeith (a town of several thousand inhabitants, about six miles southeast of Edinburgh) in 1831. His early education was obtained at the Dalkeith Grammar School and at the Circus Place School in Edinburgh. Tait was a distinguished pupil, and those of his schoolfellows who are still alive speak of him with so much love and respect that he must have been a leader among them. Clerk Maxwell was his most intimate school and college friend, and the friendship thus begun continued till Maxwell's death, undisturbed by the fact that they were rivals for the Edinburgh chair in 1860. 'Both were men of playful disposition and of absolute frankness and sincerity.'

Tait studied at Edinburgh University for one session under Kelland and Forbes, and the promise he then gave was amply fulfilled at St. Peter's College, Cambridge, where he became senior wrangler and first Smith's Prizeman in 1852, being just twenty-one years of age. His private tutor was William Hopkins, to whose tuition Tait attributed much of his mathematical skill. Tait seems to have joined heartily in all phases of undergraduate life at Peterhouse. He was a keen golfer, and for forty years he spent an annual holiday on the links at St. Andrew's. It is said that his son's progress to the championship in golf was dearer to him than his own scientific fame. And some declare that the untimely death of his son, an officer in the Black Watch in the South African War, hastened his father's last illness, to which he succumbed on July 4, 1901, at seventy years of age.

In 1854 Tait was appointed professor of mathematics in Queen's College, Belfast, and became acquainted with Andrews, the chemist, and Rowan Hamilton, the mathematician. Andrews stimulated his love for physical research and helped him to gain the power of apprehending the facts and of plainly formulating the theories of natural philos-