In 2005 Still's cosmic death vigil took him and his family—Alison, and their two-year-old son, Oliver—to South Africa, where they lived for two years. Together they explored cities and took day trips into the wilderness. For one week out of every six, Still left his wife and toddler, taking a minibus to the Karoo Plateau, about 20 kilometers from the nearest village and nearly 500 kilometers from Cape Town. From a telescope on a mountain there, he watched stellar death rear its celestial head, aiming a 10-meter telescope at specific stars and galaxies. But stars and death were both confined to the night. During the day Still's environment was teeming with life; herds of wild springbok lived out mini dramas on the wide plain below the observatory.
"While Africa is full of incredible poverty, and crime and health issues, and social issues—despite all of that it's the most beautiful continent I've ever been to," he says. "It's just an incredibly diverse and confusing and intoxicating place to be. It is, by far, my favorite place on Earth."
Leave our own terra firma, and Still’s criteria for selecting favorites changes dramatically. Out of the thousands of exoplanet candidates that Kepler has discovered, he says his favorite is 22B. It's the first planet the project found in the "habitable zone," that orbital sweet spot between freezing too far away from a star and frying too close to it. It's also an Earth-size planet, which makes it easier for NASA garner public support for its budget. A gas-giant more like Jupiter may confound Americans already struggling to understand the benefits of space exploration. People tend to prefer the familiar.
Still, however, says he loves the unknown.
"I'm always, always, always reaching out for something better," he says. "The opportunities are just too great; the rewards for hard work and innovation are just enormous. I'm never content."
A life full of ambition within the space agency is both a blessing and a curse. It means he is quick to take on more responsibilities, holding two jobs at NASA. It also means that Still has lost the ability to sit still. Defying his last name, the astrophysicist laughs at the idea of relaxing.
After all, he has a lot of work to do—part of which involves filing grant applications and promoting Kepler’s mission. Not many people in the U.S. are well versed in math and science, which may be one of the reasons NASA usually receives less than 1 percent of the federal budget and why it stands to lose an estimated 19,400 jobs in March. Texas will likely cut the most, downsizing more than 5,600 spots. California, where Still lives, faces the second-largest layoff of about 4,586 positions, according to the AIA [pdf]. But the astrophysicist says he isn’t too worried about his own job. He believes there will always be a creative fix, another opportunity. Endings, he adds, aren’t always what they seem.
"The death of the star seeds the universe with life," Still says. "Stars are the ovens of the universe. All of those things that life requires to exist were born inside these stars, and the very violent events of their deaths have thrown these elements out into the universe so that you and I can be constructed."
When a star expires, he adds, that's only the beginning. The important part is what happens afterward—when the light rushes outward, when gases and elements are flung far and wide, when the ripple effects of the blast manifest themselves in myriad ways. What comes out of the explosion is the mystery.
It's true that black holes, as the final stage of a star’s death, offer us a glimpse into the cosmic past, but, right now, Still is only interested in the future of human discovery.