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
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
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.
The film #Gravity should be renamed "Zero Gravity"— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) October 6, 2013