George Danos worked with Richard Branson in his previous incarnation as a successful dot-com pioneer. Now he’s returned to his childhood passion – Space – and is determined Cyprus can contribute to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. By Theo Panayides
Meeting George Danos – president of the Cyprus Space Exploration Organisation (CSEO), among other achievements – comes with a number of surprises. First of all, the building where he lives (a squat block of flats in a Nicosia suburb; he’s on the ground floor) is called the George K. Danos Building, making you wonder if the rest of his life is similarly self-referential. Second, hanging prominently on display on the walls of his home – next to the European Space Agency fridge magnets, and the stack of VHS tapes of The X-Files – is an impressive array of religious icons. And third, his flat seems devoted – incongruously for such a sober-looking, almost-45-year-old man – to the glories of champagne. I can see three or four empty bottles, used as decoration; another one (he tells me) has pride of place in the kitchen, unopened and signed by Richard Branson.
Let’s explain the easiest one first. The ‘George K. Danos’ whom the block of flats is named after isn’t George himself but his grandfather, a high-ranking policeman in colonial times who was prominent enough to be granted a state funeral. His grandpa was much-beloved, says George with feeling. “He helped a lot of people,” he affirms, adding: “I have a part of him in me. I’m like that too” – a line that goes some way to explaining the existence of the CSEO, a labour of love which he co-founded in 2012. And what of the champagne? It’s his favourite drink, explains George – but maybe it’s also symbolic, a reminder of the heady days of the dot-com boom (or dot-com bubble) which he experienced first-hand as co-founder and CTO of Virgin Biznet, one of Branson’s most lucrative ventures.
“It was an absolutely amazing time,” he recalls of those years (roughly 1997-2001) when he and other young internet mavens settled the wild frontier of online business, burning the candle at both ends and reaping disproportionate rewards. “Everybody who worked with me, and is still in the UK, says those times will never come back. It was crazy times, the dot-com era. Crazy times”. The hours were long, the parties mad, the perks significant (among other things, he arranged for two months’ holiday to come to Cyprus every summer); George was a frequent visitor to the House of Lords, meeting individual Lords to advise on joint projects they were doing with Virgin. Maybe that’s why he left the UK, he muses – he went travelling, then to Ireland, then back to Cyprus in 2005 – because “the dot-com times had actually gone, and then everybody was so sober. And so, like, blue-chip behaviour”.
Yet he seems so meticulous, I point out. Did he really have a problem with ‘blue-chip’, by-the-book behaviour?
He pauses, as people do when about to summarise themselves. “I’m very formal, OK?” he concedes. “I behave, in most aspects of my life – even with friends – in a formal way, and sometimes they say ‘George, loosen up, relax’. But at the same time, I’m a party animal. The parties that I gave were notorious in London. If Richard Branson’s parties were notorious, my parties were notorious too!”
I wasn’t there (alas) for those parties, but I’d be surprised if they ended with George getting falling-down drunk and embarrassing himself. He’s just too controlled. He lives in his current abode with two cats, Lily and Mariwa – and he’s shocked when I ask whether ‘Mariwa’ is short for ‘marijuana’: “No, no, definitely not! I never [even] smoked tobacco. I’ve never smoked anything, or done anything”. (The name actually comes from the way she miaows.) One imagines him gliding noiselessly through his Bayswater home, glass of champagne in his hand, being the solicitous host and making sure his guests were enjoying all the things he’d prepared for them. There might be 100 guests, often including celebrities; once, at a Guy Fawkes party, the neighbours complained about the noise from his fireworks display – so he invited the neighbours in too.
He is indeed meticulous; he does indeed like to prepare things, whether it’s a big party or just our interview which he treats like a presentation, bringing out props at appropriate moments. “I’ll get to that, I’m going to go chronologically,” he says at one point, when I ask a premature question. “I still have them stored in my archive,” he notes later, speaking of the UK press clippings marking the launch of Virgin Biznet. That, too, was about being meticulous, less a radically new idea than an idea whose time had come: for the first time, an off-the-shelf package was created offering a complete service to companies that wanted to get on the internet (“Remember, that was the time when, if you saw a URL on a billboard, it was like ‘That is so cool’. We were counting them on the highway, from London to Heathrow!”). George, working as a relatively lowly IT manager at Virgin, conceived of a package that would do absolutely everything for business clients, from listing their website to promoting their wares and communicating with customers – and the whole thing was “boxed like a fast-food product that you take and it’s got everything, your chips, your Coke and your burger”. Richard Branson gave him £10 million to bring the idea to fruition, then made many times that amount after Biznet was launched – and made even more by selling it on just before the dot-com bubble burst. George, as co-founder and CTO, got “a lump sum”, leaving him both very rich and barely past his 30th birthday.
That, you might say, was the first act in George Danos’ life – and it’s already possible to note the various strands that combine in his personality. On the one hand, he is – to put it bluntly – a geek, an IT person, with glimpses of the almost pedantic exactitude that defines the breed. He also seems to gravitate to structure, and indeed authority. (Family background may be relevant: his grandfather, as already mentioned, was a senior cop; his father and both younger brothers are lawyers.) In high school, he recalls proudly, he used to invite the headmaster to events organised by the Science Society, of which he was president; in the army, he did something similar with the top brass. On the wall of his flat is a framed letter from the former King of Greece, thanking George for his wishes on the occasion of the wedding of the King’s son – and he’s no monarchist, explains George hastily, that was just a one-off, then again he did frame the letter and put it on his wall.
Anarchy isn’t part of his makeup; I suspect he finds nothing very attractive in the notion of total freedom – his belief in authority finding its highest expression, of course, in his strong belief in God (hence the religious icons). But he’s also an explorer, a curious mind, always looking for more: “I’ve always been a character that wanted to break frontiers,” as he puts it – and he also, unlike the stereotypical geek, seems to be a sociable, outgoing person, able to charm and persuade when necessary. This is why, for the past two years, George has been the public face of CSEO, appearing on TV, talking to schoolkids, and taking endless meetings with space agencies and government officials.
CSEO is his baby, the second act in his life – not just a project but an act of giving back, like his benefactor granddad. There are five goals listed in the organisation’s charter, he explains, “but the main goal was to make Cyprus proud. The main goal was to utilise the talents of this country, so they’re not wasted, and to make all of us proud.”
Space has been his passion since childhood; he got his first telescope while still in kindergarten. In Britain, he was president of the Imperial College chapter of SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), on the Board of Directors of parent body UKSEDS and also on friendly terms with legendary TV astronomer Patrick Moore, even being featured once on his show The Sky at Night. That was when he was at Virgin and very involved with SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence; “I had a massive network at Virgin that was crunching bytes,” doing their bit in sifting through billions of signals from outer space in search of those that may come from aliens. Fast-forward to 2012, and a space conference in Limassol which George attended (he’d been back for seven years, running a successful IT company called ArtFX) – and suddenly, seeing the potential in a roomful of Cypriot space scientists, he decided to go all-out, using all his connections, “all my strength and all my passion” to create CSEO and “place Cyprus on the space-industry map”.
The goal was noble, and perhaps utopian. Cyprus, a tiny island with no high-tech scientific credentials or tradition, involved in space exploration? “You have no idea how many people laughed at us,” he recalls. “People felt that Cyprus is incompetent,” unable to do simple things properly (Mari was frequently cited), let alone venture into outer space. Yet, three years later, two local projects – Mars Sense and Arachnobeea – have successfully competed at the highest levels of space research, the former named among the four best projects worldwide at last year’s NASA SpaceOps (“like the Oscars” of space exploration, he explains), the latter winning this year’s NASA Space Apps Challenge in the ‘Best Mission Concept’ category.
What does that mean? Maybe nothing, in terms of actual investment – but the CSEO has changed the “climate”, as George puts it. It’s a bit like when he got the headmaster to lend his weight to the Science Society: in appealing to authority (NASA being the highest authority), he’s made Cyprus credible. Neither Mars Sense nor Arachnobeea was George’s own idea, of course – but the CSEO played a big part in the “media blitz” that promoted the former, and surely encouraged the latter just by making space research so visible and viable. For the past two years he’s organised event after event, gone from school to school, invited luminaries like Russian cosmonaut Aleksandr Volkov, signed Memorandums of Understanding with assorted foreign space agencies, drawn up a “full business case” and presented it to government ministers in order to make Cyprus a full member of the European Space Agency (members have to contribute financially, which is why there’s resistance). “At the beginning they were very sceptical towards us,” he says of the government. “But, bit by bit, they saw that we’re bringing results”.
It’s come at a cost, and indeed the cost is visible: George has vitiligo, a skin condition that causes his skin to fade, leaving white blotches – and the blotches on his face have grown bigger in the past year, because vitiligo is made worse by stress. Yet surely he must feel that it’s been worth it – because there’s another aspect to George Danos, one that hasn’t really been mentioned so far. He’s not just an IT guy, or an entrepreneur, or a media personality or a party animal: he’s a man who’s always gazed at the stars, and wondered who’s out there.
“I wanted to discover something different. It was maybe a soul quest or something,” is how he describes his year of travelling (China, Brazil, etc) after he left Virgin – and the stars fill a similar role in his life, a quest simultaneously to the furthest reaches of the universe and the innermost parts of his soul. Does he think SETI is useful? Is it plausible to think there may be contact with extraterrestrials in our lifetime?
“I surely hope so.”
But is it plausible?
“It is plausible, yes.” There are so many stars, 500 billion galaxies, each one with trillions of stars: “In Carl Sagan’s words, it would be an absolute waste of space if there is no life”. Yet it’s also true that we’ve only been listening for the past 100 years or so – “a quick blip” in the lifetime of the universe. There’s no reason to believe we’ll receive a signal now, out of all the possible millennia when aliens might choose (or have chosen) to contact us.
It’s a long-shot – but then everything in space exploration is a long-shot; the universe is just too vast, too unimaginable. Even God is a long-shot, objectively speaking. “There are probably levels we can’t fully comprehend,” he tells me; we’re like an ant walking on the earth – not even conscious of the human beings around it, let alone able to know what they’re thinking. In the end, “I use this as my compass,” says George, pointing to his heart – which is also a way of saying that it doesn’t really matter if exploring space, or listening for aliens, is useful or useless: we have to do it.
“Why did we build the CERN facility? Why did we go to the Moon? Why do we do the things we do as humanity? Because we always explore.” George Danos looks at me, moon-faced and utterly determined. “Why do we explore? Human mind. Human spirit. That’s why we explore.
“And we will never cease to. Because we’re humans.”