With the volumes of legitimate scientific information available via the Internet, from the latest NASA
research to exhaustive medical data, you might think that the experiments of two Rice University
undergrads would go unnoticed. After all, how could their amateur findings compete for attention
against established researchers sharing groundbreaking theories on ozone depletion and the mating
habits of endangered species?
Yet both the scientific and lay communities are slowly beginning to recognize Chris Gouge and Todd Stadler as intrepid pioneers of a sadly neglected discipline. Kevin Hames of NASA praised the young duo's work: "Thanks for sharing your test results with the rest of the world. I believe that your data will be very important to NASA's Space Station Program."
Conceding to the politically correct climate on the Rice campus, the pair performed their experiments on test subjects that even the most rabid People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal zealots would applaud --
Yes, Twinkies, those sugary cakes that originated with a forward-thinking Continental Bakery manager in 1930. The baker, noticing sponge cake consumption dropped with the end of strawberry season, conceived the idea of filling the cakes with the now legendary, sugary creme filling and the rest is junk food history.
Necessity might be the mother of invention, but in the case of Gouge and Stadler, it was finals week. "There's no inspiring ABC Afterschool-type story," says Stadler, a 20-year-old computer engineering major from suburban Dallas. The two were sitting around with a bunch of friends during finals basically procrastinating when the discussion turned to a now classic Web site, the Strawberry Pop-Tart Blow Torches (http://www.sci.tamucc.edu/~pmichaud/toast/). The duo decided to further the research in scope and subject, opting to experiment on the Twinkie for its status as pop icon.
What followed were four days of intense research in which the pair put Twinkie after Twinkie through a battery of conventional tests that included dropping one six stories to record its "gravitational response" and liquefying another to test its maximum density. (Amazingly, they discovered Twinkies were 68 percent air.) The young scientists were able to complete their experiments successfully despite being hampered by observers attempting to consume the control subjects.
The last test was perhaps the most unusual: Gouge and Stadler compared the intelligence of a Twinkie to that of a human subject. As they note on their site, "we decided to do this test last, because we killed a lot of (Twinkies) during these experiments and didn't want to know (if they were intelligent) before the other tests were over."
Gouge and Stadler slightly modified the Turing Test, normally used to examine computers' potential for artificial intelligence. Typically, the test compares computer-generated responses with those of a human to track how closely the two "minds" think. The pair had to abandon their first test after the human subject ate the Twinkie subject. When the test was administered with a new human test subject, Dave, and a non- eaten Twinkie, the undaunted scientists discovered...well, I don't want to give that answer away.
Once the results were in, the pair posted them on the Web under the name the T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. (Tests With Inorganic Noxious Kakes In Extreme Situations) Project [http://www.owlnet.rice.edu/~gouge/twinkies.html]. The researchers were caught by surprise by the overwhelmingly positive response they received. The site garnered so much buzz that Stadler overhauled the text and graphics to make it more user-friendly during downtime at his internship with a major telecommunications company (Stadler declined to further identify the company lest his boss discover that he actually had downtime).
The redesigned site should serve as a guideline for more "serious" scientists who publish their research on the 'net. In addition to separate pages that fully illustrate each experiment, Stadler succinctly summarized their findings in the form of a haiku.
unless doused in alcohol
then they make good fires"
Stadler says he chose haiku over a more traditional approach to writing up lab results because "it's a funny kind of poetry that lends itself to be used in silly ways."
The duo say they receive some really lame e-mail suggesting stuff such as "Wouldn't it be cool if you did the same test with a HoHo's or a Suzy-Q's" for future tests. The two have discussed more advanced tests such as tensile strength or liquid nitrogen, but what will determine their scientific future is how hard their classes are this semester.
The two say they both enjoy the fame and recognition the T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. Project has brought them both on the Rice campus and on the 'net. Gouge, a 20-year-old computer science and cognitive science major from Austin, Texas, was recently on a blind date when his escort discovered that he was the Chris Gouge. "It gave us something to talk about," Gouge says.
The page has even captured the imagination of a group of scientists in Sweden who love the page despite the fact that Twinkies are an unknown substance in Scandinavia. This may just prove the universal humor and appeal of the too often unheralded Twinkie. After all, who would visit a Web page in which University of Stockholm students tested lutefisk?
As of press time, the pair had yet to receive an official response from Hostess, but they did send in proof-of-purchase seals to garner official Hostess Twinkie T-shirts.
Ironically, the Twinkie is not the preferred junk food of either student. Gouge reaches for Hostess Cupcakes ("the chocolate gets me every time") when his blood sugar levels off, while Stadler prefers Ding Dongs (or King Dons as they're inexplicably known in certain states).
Gouge says they average three to four e-mails per day about the project, almost all positive. "A lot of people have sent us mail saying this was the best use of the 'net,'' he said.
"Occasionally people tell us we have way too much spare time, but look at some of the other sites out there," Gouge says, "I mean an Erik Estrada home page, the Electrical Engineering Purity Test? Now those sites are scary."