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the scope of possibility How one unlikely rural Georgian became a self-taught astronomer

Howard Sims is an 83 year-old man from Comer, Georgia, who found an affinity for astronomy long before he even knew what astronomy was. As a small child in the 1940s, he would often lie in a field that yielded no more than $500 worth of cotton a year for him and his family. In those quiet moments, Sims said he would look up at the sky and wonder what was up there.

Sims is holding his personal model of the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of the dozens astronomical models he collects.

Sims was 17 when he saw his first telescope after he and his family moved from Comer to Chicago. They visited the Alder Planetarium within his first month in the city.

"I had to build one (a telescope). I asked the people who worked there how, and they placed a book with instructions in my hands. They told me to read chapters one through six twice over, and then I would know how. So I did."

Sims' observatory that he started to build in 2001 and finished in 2002. The dome rotates 360 degrees, is 18 feet tall, and can comfortably hold ten people.

Sims learned how to grind glass together to make the mirrors necessary for telescopic lenses around the same time that he began working as a glass sign manufacturer at the Beeco Technology Company. During that time the dream to build his own observatory began to take root. He decided he would move back to Comer where there was less light pollution and build an observatory when he retired. An observatory is essentially a room equipped with a telescope and other scientific materials for the study of astronomical phenomena.

Sims built his first telescope in 1962. Seven years later, Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. Dissatisfied with the distance that his first telescope could reach, Sims built this 300 pound telescope in 1974.

Though it is daytime, Sims is adjusting the telescope to focus on soda cans he nailed to a tree roughly a mile away.

True to his desire, on the day of his sixty-fifth birthday Sims retired. He has always loved working with his hands, and retirement allotted him more time to partner his skills in glassmaking with his passion for astronomy.

According to Data USA, 96.8 percent of astronomers and physicists in the American work force are white or Asian. There are only 92 working astronomers and physicists over the age of 80 in the United States. Sims was never a paid or commissioned astronomer and is completely self taught. He finished his formal education in the eleventh grade in a one room school where his teachers did not know how to use a typewriter.

Sims invited Dr. Loris Magnani, a professor of astronomy at the University of Georgia, to visit his observatory. Sims made an impression on Magnani that he has remembered in the ten years since that visit.

“For an amateur astronomer, he is about as good as it gets,” Magnani said. “He could get an A in my class without breaking a sweat.”

In comparison to the telescopes at the UGA Physics department, Magnani said that Sims’ are “little gems in relation to our functional behemoths.” Though they are smaller in size, Magnani says that Sims’ telescopes are perfect to suit Sims’ personal interests.

“We are asking different questions overall. Sims is interested in what he sees and how to improve in seeing it, whereas I am more on the theoretical side of things,” Magnani said.

Above: A model of the Solar System that Sims made out of items such as modeling clay, erasers, and scrap metal. Below, Left: A model of the moon's affect on the tides Sims made out of a golf ball. Below, Right: Sims speculates over the most dangerous asteroid that hit the Earth and projects when another will strike.

Sims does value process and proof.

“I’m always learning new things about the sky,” Sims paused to think. “But when I found out Pluto wasn’t a planet, I was so disappointed.”

The thought that a belief he harbored from the ages of 17 to 70 could be falsified vexes Sims. His need to understand has influenced his work as a craftsman. In addition to astrological dioramas and models, he has built his own furniture and fish tanks.

Sims uses a road sign to angle enough light onto the telescope mirror to start a fire.

Success.

Sims spent 66 years teaching himself about astronomy. At 83 he says he feels like he has seen almost all he can with his telescope. He now finds fulfillment in sharing his knowledge with others in the community.

“By me being an amateur astronomer, I got about 6 ponds I can go to. People come to the observatory and I don’t take no money for letting them see. They say they learn so much about the stars and the planets that they want to do something for me, so they let me fish," Sims said.

Morgan Lewis, a third year student with a geology major and astrophysics minor, has spent time in Sims’ observatory and shares his love for showing people the sky. Lewis, who has her own telescope, says that the she too is most fulfilled when sharing her passion with other people.

Sims shows Lewis a collection of constellations he mapped.

“I understand his need to share what he knows. It brings life to the knowledge. He knows so many numbers and facts, it’s mind boggling,” Lewis said.

Lewis is unsure if she wants to keep her minor in astrophysics because she thinks that the rigorous coursework often does not relate to what she enjoys most about the sky. “Sims has inspired me to think that I could potentially drop my minor, continue to teach myself, and still achieve my dreams.”

Though many of Sims own dreams involve having his head far beyond the clouds as well, does not limit his dreams to the sky. He finds much purpose in the land. He lost his wife of 59 years in December of 2017, but before he promised her that he would keep all of her plants alive. His house and garden teem with life, and he has folders filled with photographs of the one and a half acres of yard that he grooms himself. He also grows various vegetables which he gives away to his neighbors and friends.

“And that’s my dream: fish, show people the sky, work my wife’s flower beds, and have a garden where I can give the vegetables away," Sims said.

Though Sims says he is fulfilled, he is still making plans. He hopes to create a simulation in his backyard that allows people to experience what it is like to grind mirrors.

"Yeah, I would like to do that before I die. If I ever die," Sims joked.

His dream may sound simple to some. Sims started his life in the same location, and he plans on finishing it there, too. However, his choice to embrace questions and wonder within himself has brought Sims to an entirely new place.

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