Even before he hosted Cosmos, the astrophysicist gained legions of fans with his web-savvy approach to science
Credit: Michael Buckner/Getty

Even before he got the gig hosting FOX’s rebooted Cosmos, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was the Internet’s celebrity best friend – a combination of role model, spokesman and god.

How did the director of the Hayden Planetarium (and formerly one of PEOPLE’s Sexiest Men Alive) achieve his current level of viral fame? Six clues, below:

1. He’s waded into the political battle against intelligent design

Every underdog loves a famous ally, and the Internet atheists on Reddit and elsewhere have cheered Tyson in his efforts to bring his scientific knowledge into contemporary theological and philosophical debates, as well as advocate for greater NASA funding.

2. His Reddit AMAs

To reciprocate this love, Tyson often stops by Reddit’s popular Ask Me Anything board, and his four sessions are among the most popular the site’s ever done. Some highlights: He would want to live in the Star Trek universe; if he had to bring one scientific instrument to a far-off planet, he’d bring his iPhone; and the immortal quote: “I lose sleep wondering that we, as a species, are indeed simply too stupid to figure out the universe.”

3. His willingness to give actual scientific answers to silly hypothetical questions

Science isn’t always serious business. Though he deals in profound questions about the nature of the universe, Tyson never shies away from indulging the kind of science questions that pop up in late nights at the bar. (Above, he tells us what would happen if the Earth stopped rotating. Short answer: it wouldn’t be good.) The astrophysicist never ironizes or condescends, treating all scientific curiosity as equally valid.

4. His late-night talk-show appearances

Part of being a public intellectual is making talk-show rounds, and Tyson is adept at explaining science in a way that even late-night dozers, as well as sparring partners like Jon Stewart, can understand.

5. You can use him as a meme

During this interview with The Big Think, Tyson put his hands up in exaggerated confusion while describing how Isaac Newton invented calculus at age 26. The moment became a GIF, which in turn became an image meme, often used in message boards to dismiss an Internet tough guy.

6. He’s plugged into pop culture

Though he says he enjoyed Gravity, Tyson couldn’t resist getting on Twitter to discuss the film’s scientific inaccuracies – the kind of loving critique that brought actual science into the wider pop culture discussion.

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