Aristotle and the Blackbird:
A 5th-Grader’s Fascinations
“I learn most of the stuff I know from books,” fifth-grader Colter O’Brien declares. His reading proficiency shows, as Colter is a bubbling font of knowledge on a mixed bag of topics: ancient civilizations, airplanes, and Aristotle. “He invented astronomy!” Colter announces excitedly. Aristotle indeed contributed extensively to astronomy in On the Heavens, written in 350 BC. In line with Aristotle’s ultimate fascination with the celestial spheres, Colter demonstrates faithfulness to his zodiac sign, Aquarius, through his high intellect and heavy reliance on the life of the mind. In the end, it’s the fault of literature and his hunger for it.
By Nate Fisher
As Colter flips through the pages of his textbooks, he might dive into a biography about Marquis de Lafayette or pick up some new trivia about Roman aqueducts. It depends on the day. Most often, he’s transported to ancient Greece, walking the streets of Athens, overwhelmed by the haze of a heavily studied but mysterious civilization. Unlike many students his age, he doesn’t see history as a repetitive collection of dates and names to memorize. For him, the past is a treasure trove of stories, adventures, and wisdom. The Greeks are his heroes. Their mythology, philosophy, and innovations fascinate him to no end. Colter embodies what educational experts praise: the ability to contextualize and internalize information, which is a direct consequence of enjoying the ritual of reading.
One of the primary reasons he’s taken with ancient Greek civilization might be the myth of Icarus, who famously “flew too close to the sun.” The parable involved aside, Colter loves the story alone for its early depiction of human flight. Even at age ten, he echoes an aerospace engineer discussing aircraft. Lift and thrust, he says, are integral for an airplane to gain altitude. “The air goes over and under the plane, and the air under is denser,” Colter explains, “so it supports it. The air on top is light.” He’s describing how air pressure above and below a wing creates its lift. There’s no divine miracle of spontaneous knowledge here, as Aristotle might have believed (the dude thought insects came to be out of thin air). Colter absorbs this complex web of information from books alone, and the following curiosity only continues the cycle of reading and learning. He sees himself in a hangar bay far in the future, but not necessarily in an engineer role. Colter wants to be suited up and ready to pilot. He’d be thrilled to sit in the cockpit of the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest aircraft on official record. “You have to wear a special suit,” he says, our interview now evolved into a class in military aircraft safety protocol, “so you don’t burn up. It goes faster than the speed of sound.” Though it can move faster than we can sense, an SR-71 rests quietly at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Visiting the museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force base to see this crown jewel of airspeed is one of Colter’s all-time favorite experiences.
Aristotle often spoke of “virtue” and “excellence” in his treatises, notably in his doctrine of the “Golden Mean.” He believed that excellence was not an act but a habit you cultivate over time. This mindset can be seen in the careful engineering and continuous refinement that went into Colter’s favorite aircraft, the SR-71. The plane was not a product of its time but a manifestation of human excellence in a specific field, striving to push the boundaries of achievable goals, as Aristotle did with human thought. Colter may or may not be making these same connections consciously, but the ladders of wisdom sprouting from his books reinforce an already towering sense of wonder in the world. That’s where all great thinkers like Colter begin, and he’s only started to reach for the virtue of “excellence.