Peter Guthrie Tait lived from 28 April 1831 to 4 July 1901. He was a mathematical physicist best known for his joint-authorship of a textbook which defined the science of physics. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Peter Guthrie Tait was born in Dalkeith. He was educated at Edinburgh Academy and then studied at the University of Edinburgh and Peterhouse College in Cambridge. He graduated in 1852 and then taught for two years at Peterhouse before becoming Professor of Mathematics at Queen's College, Belfast.
In 1860, Tait became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Here he produced a considerable amount of original work, first in the field of mathematics, and later in mathematical and experimental physics. He became increasingly well regarded for his work on thermodynamics, and did much to establish the importance of what he called of the principle of the dissipation of energy, which is today better known as the second law of thermodynamics. It says much for his academic and research output that a selection of his papers later published by the Cambridge University Press fills three large volumes.
Tait is best remembered for his collaboration with William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin, on a textbook that sought to unify the physical sciences under the common principle of energy. They began working together on the project soon after Tait took up his post in Edinburgh in 1860. The result, published in 1867, was Treatise on Natural Philosophy, which defined the science of physics and became one of the most influential scientific textbook ever written. It became known to generations of students as "Thomson and Tait", or simply "T&T".
Tait was a married man with seven children. He was also an enthusiastic golfer and two of his sons, Frederick Guthrie Tait and John Guthrie Tait, became successful amateur champions. In 1891 Peter Guthrie Tait used the Magnus Effect to explain the effect of spin on the flight of a golf ball. He died in 1901.