"What Do You Mean, 'Biblical'?": Calculating the Ghostbusters Twinkie in Real Life

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[Image: J. Kenji López-Alt]

"I'm worried, Ray. It's getting crowded in there. And all my recent data points to something big on the horizon."

"What do you mean, 'big'?"

"Well," says Harold Ramis's Egon Spengler, the science geek of the original Ghostbusters crew, as he holds up a Twinkie. "Let's say this Twinkie represents the normal amount of psychokinetic energy in the New York area. According to this morning's sample, it would be a Twinkie 35 feet long, weighing approximately 600 pounds."

That's a big Twinkie, you think to yourself, as Ernie Hudson's Winston Zeddemore says it on screen.

But exactly how big is it?

In an effort to help myself visualize a Twinkie of this magnitude, I started doing a few basic calculations, and realized that there are some major inconsistencies in Dr. Spengler's hypothetical Twinkie.

How Much Would a 35-Foot Twinkie Weigh?

Your standard Twinkie is a shelf-stable, cream-filled sponge cake that weighs in at 38.5 grams and is about 9.9 centimeters long (about 3.9 inches and 1.4 ounces, in imperial units). Let's start with the assumption that Egon's 35-foot-long Twinkie maintains its proportions—the dimensions all scale; the ratio of cream to cake stays the same. Given that he's using it to illustrate a visual metaphor, I think this is a fair assumption to make.

So, how many standard Twinkies would it take to equal one super-sized Ghostbusters Twinkie?

I made a spreadsheet to calculate the weight of a Twinkie of various sizes. Let me quickly walk you through the math. To make things a little easier, we're going to assume a Twinkie is a simple box.

First, let's start by converting everything into metric units, so we can pull a Venkman and at least pretend to be scientific. Thirty-five feet converted to centimeters comes out to 1,070,* or 108 times the length of a single Twinkie. Now, because this Twinkie is three-dimensional—that is, it expands proportionally along all three axes—it's also going to be 108 times taller than a standard Twinkie, and 108 times wider. Thus, it would take 1083 standard Twinkies to make up the equivalent of a single 35-foot-long MegaTwinkie.

    * I'm working with three significant figures because, although Egon claims his calculations were approximate, we can assume that the approximations of someone who collects spores, molds, and fungus as a hobby are more precise than those of the standard human.

Dimensions of Egon's Twinkie**

Length (cm) Length (feet) Weight (g) Weight (tons)
Modern Twinkie 9.9 0.3 38.5 n/a
1984 Twinkie 10.2 0.3 42.5 n/a
The Ghostbusters Twinkie 1,070 35 49,200,000 54
    **I get a kick out of thinking of how Harold Ramis might have reacted to knowing that someone made a chart titled "Egon's Twinkie."

That's 1.25 million Twinkies. One million, two hundred fifty thousand. To put that in perspective, Hostess only produces about 500 million Twinkies per year. If they took all of the ingredients used to make those 500 million Twinkies and used them to bake Ghostbusters-sized Twinkies***, they'd be able to bake only 400 of them. If you started lining those giant Twinkies up at the Ghostbusters' HQ and laid them end to end, you'd run out of Twinkies at just past the halfway mark to Dana Barrett's apartment on Central Park West. That's the power of cubes—they get big real fast!

    *** Assuming they had the oven technology, and that the laws of thermodynamics and intramolecular forces were placed on hold for a little while.

Now do you see Egon's problem? A Twinkie 35 feet long would actually weigh 1.25 million times more than a standard Twinkie, or approximately 53 tons. And it gets worse. As any snack-cake historian could tell you, modern Twinkies are different from 1984 Ghostbusters-era Twinkies. Twinkies were discontinued briefly a couple of years back and reemerged from Hostess's bankruptcy as shorter, less dense versions of their previous form. While modern Twinkies are 9.9 centimeters long and weigh 38.5 grams, 1984 Twinkies were 10.2 centimeters long and weighed 42.5 grams. Redoing the calculations with those measurements gives you a Twinkie that weighs 54 tons.

If our own BraveTart (a.k.a. Stella Parks) were to re-create this Twinkie using the recipe in her upcoming book, she'd either have to mise the recipe out 16,000 times, or scale it up so the ingredient list called for "1 2/3 (full-sized) dump trucks of flour, sifted."****

    **** Some back-of-the-napkin math: A Twinkie is about 75% cake and 25% filling, and of that cake, about 25% is flour. So, to make 54 tons of Twinkie takes 54 x 0.75 x 0.25 tons of flour, or 324,000 ounces. A cup of flour varies by weight depending on how tightly you pack it, but we use an equivalency of 5 ounces per cup on Serious Eats, for a total of 64,800 cups of flour. A cup of flour is about 0.00836 cubic feet, or about 0.000310 cubic yards (that's the unit of volume that American dump trucks are measured by), so it would take 20.1 cubic yards of flour to make 1.25 million Twinkies. The average dump truck carries about 12 cubic yards of material, so it'd take one full truck plus two-thirds of a second truck to carry that flour into Stella's home kitchen.


That's a big Twinkie.

[Image: Rebecca Davis, TODAY.com]

A quick reverse calculation shows that a 600-pound Twinkie would actually only be about 6 feet long, which means that when a 6-foot-tall Twinkie the Kid made an appearance on the Today show, that was 600 pounds of sponge cake and creamy filling Al Roker was chatting with. It was also perhaps a sign that many Shuvs and Zuuls would soon know what it was to be roasted in the depths of a Slor. (I wonder if one could bake a Twinkie inside a Slor?)

Maybe We Heard Wrong?

Here's a scenario: What if Egon didn't mean that the Twinkie was proportionally enlarged? What if he really meant that only the length of the Twinkie changed, but the height and the width stayed the same? Admittedly, that assumption is a bit of a *ahem* stretch, especially considering that Winston responds with "That's a big Twinkie," and Egon doesn't correct him with "You mean 'long' Twinkie."

Either way, the math still doesn't work out. In this case, a 35-foot-long Twinkie would weigh only about 10 pounds. Meanwhile, a 600-pound Twinkie would have to stretch around 2,100 feet, or about eight New York City blocks running north to south.

And, just for good measure, let's consider the least likely interpretation: The Twinkie was expanding in two dimensions (i.e., you end up with either TwinkieWall or TwinkieFloor). That's still a no-go. A 35-foot TwinkieWall would weigh about half a ton, while a 600-pound TwinkieWall would be only 26 feet long.

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So How Could a 35-Foot Twinkie Weigh 600 Pounds?

Thus far, we've been assuming that all of this giant-snack-cake action has been taking place on the surface of the earth, a place where we know it is impossible. But what if Egon wasn't making this assumption? Is there any way we can retcon his quote, 12 parsecs–style, to restore some legitimacy to Spengler's supposed genius? My theory is that Egon knows that 600 pounds is the maximum weight that a 35-foot-long Twinkie could be while still being able to stand under its own support. (We'll get back to the physics of big things shortly. For now, just trust me: A 35-foot Twinkie could not support its own weight on the surface of the earth.)

How can you make something that weighs 54 tons weigh only 600 pounds? Easy: You just lift it really, really high. We all remember our high school physics, right? The mass of an object never changes, but its weight can change based on its relative location to other objects. Gravitational pull (a.k.a. weight) is a force proportional to the inverse of the square of the distance between the center of mass of two objects. That is, the farther you get from the center of the earth, the less you weigh.*****

    ***** Okay, not quite. The earth is not a point mass, which means that its gravitational pull actually decreases overall as you burrow down toward the center of it.******
    ****** Okay, not quite. Because of changes in the relative density of the various layers of the earth's interior, the force of gravity actually increases as you start to burrow down, rising steadily higher as you make your way through the upper mantle, dipping a bit about halfway through the lower mantle, and maxing out just as you reach the outer core, before dropping precipitously until you are at full zero G right in the center of the earth. You're probably also breaking a bit of a sweat by that point.

Time for some more napkin math. First, let's convert to metric again. Six hundred pounds is 272 kilograms. In Lower Manhattan, about 6,500 kilometers from the center of Earth's mass, a 35-foot Twinkie has a mass of about 54 tons, or 4.9•104 kilograms. So we're looking for the point in space where an object would weigh about 0.0056 times its weight on the surface of the earth. The formula for gravitational force is:

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where F is the force, G is the universal gravitational constant, m1 is the mass of the first object, m2 is the mass of the second object, and d is the distance between those two objects.

Let's call the mass of the earth me and the mass of the MegaTwinkie mmt. Plugging in the original weight of the MegaTwinkie (Fmt), its original distance from the earth's core (6.5•103km), and the new weight we're looking for ((5.6•10-3)Fmt), we get two equations:

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where d' is the new distance we're trying to calculate. Solving those two equations for d', you get a distance of about 87,000 kilometers from the center of the earth. In order for that Twinkie to weigh 600 pounds, you'd have to blast it off on a rocket (shoring it up so it can withstand those G-forces, of course), fly it past the stratosphere, watch those meteoroids ignite into burning meteors as it whizzes through the mesosphere, wave at the astronauts aboard the International Space Station at 400 kilometers, photobomb the Hubble Space Telescope at 600 kilometers, disrupt armies and Uber drivers all over the world as you smash through GPS satellites at 20,000 kilometers, then leave them all in the dust and set the cruise control as you coast the rest of the way, pulling off that interplanetary superhighway when you're almost a quarter of the way to the moon.

Here's a scaled representation of how high each of these orbits is. (Note: The objects themselves are not drawn to scale. Neither is the earth.)

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[Image: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Now, what if you wanted to eat that 600-pound, 35-foot-long MegaTwinkie? At a rate of one regular-sized Twinkie per minute, it'd take you 2.38 years of nonstop eating to finish it off, which means we're going to have to keep that Twinkie up there while we eat, somehow. We could put that Twinkie in a giant Twinkie-box-shaped space station and set it on a steady orbit around the earth at 7,440 kilometers per hour, making a full revolution every three and a quarter days, though, if we did that, the entire contents of that space station would be in constant freefall, which means that we'd have no way of actually weighing that Twinkie—to an observer on the space station, it would appear to be totally weightless. Twinkies are hard enough to keep down on planet Earth. Imagine trying to power through one at near–zero G.

The only practical solution would be to take the Starship Twinkieprise into deep space and set it on a straight-line course with a constant acceleration of 0.0544m/s2 as we ate our way through it. Assuming the direction of acceleration is positive x, a scale placed in the negative x position right under that Twinkie should register a constant 600 pounds of force, if my math is correct.

And if you were to actually eat that Twinkie? You'd be consuming 188,000,000 calories—enough to last the average person for about 3.67 lifetimes.

This all assumes that one could construct such a Twinkie down on earth in the first place. There are some issues with that.

Can It Be Done?

"Ray, for a moment, pretend that I don't know anything about thermodynamics, engineering, or baking, and just tell me whether we can really bake a Twinkie this big."

No problem, Dr. Venkman: The answer is no. Even if you could source all of the ingredients and somehow construct an oven capable of baking a 35-foot Twinkie, it could not be done. Here's why.

The Thermodynamic Problem

Cakes cook from the outside in. Aside from triggering browning and caramelization reactions, heat has two main structural roles in baking. First, it causes pockets of air and water vapor inside the batter to expand, giving cake its light, fluffy texture. Second, it causes the batter to set, giving it structure and semi-rigidity. The problem is that no matter how large a cake gets, heat travels through it at the same rate. As the cake starts to get giant-Twinkie-sized, it'll take days for heat to penetrate through to the center of the cake and cook it. All the while, the outer layers of that cake will either burn or dehydrate. You simply can't cook a large cake evenly. This is the main reason why elaborate cakes must be baked in individual layers and stacked instead of being baked in one large pan.

This is also why it never works when you try to make one proportionally giant cookie or pancake instead of several smaller ones. You can never get the center of it to set properly before the rest starts to dry out or burn.

When Jeff Potter, the author of Cooking for Geeks, tried to bake a 500-pound doughnut for a short-lived Food Network show, it took 12 hours to cook through to the center, and our Twinkie is far, far larger than his doughnut.*******

    ******* Incidentally, that doughnut was about 5 feet in diameter and weighed around 500 pounds, which gives me confidence that our estimate that a 600-pound Twinkie would be about 6 feet long is pretty accurate.

The Square-Cube Law

Even if we manage to somehow get a Twinkie this large to bake—say, by baking it in mutliple layers and stacking them, or perhaps by inserting wires deep into it and heating it internally via electric stimulation—there's an even bigger problem with a Twinkie that size: It would never stand up.

The square-cube law states that as a given object grows in size, its volume will grow faster than its surface area. It's easiest to think of this in terms of sugar cubes. A single sugar cube sits on the table on a single face; thus, that single face has the weight of a single sugar cube on top of it. Now let's see what happens if we add more sugar cubes to form one larger cube that is twice as big in each dimension. The height becomes twice as large, and the surface area of each face becomes four times as large (22). On the other hand, the volume—and therefore the mass—is eight times as large (23). This means that each of the four faces on the base of those stacked sugar cubes is now holding up twice as much weight as it originally had to.

Increase the height again to three times each original dimension, and now each face of those bottom cubes has to hold up three times as much weight. Increase it to four, and they have to hold up four times as much.

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[Image: J. Kenji López-Alt]

You can see where this is going. By the time we get to our 35-foot-long Twinkie, each standard Twinkie-sized unit on the bottom of that giant Twinkie has to hold up 108 times the weight of a single Twinkie, or about 10 pounds total.

This is what happens when you put 10 pounds on top of a Twinkie:


[Video: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Squishhhhhhhhh.

Not quite as dramatic as a Twinkie being crushed by a hydraulic press, but still, not pretty.

We're also being generous here by assuming that Twinkies have perfectly rigid side walls. The reality is that the walls of a 54-ton Twinkie would never be strong enough to hold its insides in. Your Twinkie would bow outwards and deform into a wobbly pool of cream and sponge cake with the approximate shape of a class 5 full-roaming vapor before you even got it halfway out of its gigantic baking tin. Even the 500-pound doughnut that Jeff baked in his video suffered from this problem, turning into a Dalí-esque melting-clock version of a doughnut under its own weight.

The square-cube law has some interesting ramifications in the non-paranormal world. It's the reason that ants and fleas are proportionally so much stronger than an elephant, and the reason that small animals can fall great distances without hurting themselves,******** and why the largest creatures on the earth all live in the ocean, where water helps support their weight. It's also one of the reasons why humans have a maximum size. As much as we love the idea of giants, a humanoid giant would not be able to support its own weight on its feet. Humans are taller now than they ever were, but we can only go so far: Given our physiology, most estimates place the largest possible average human size at around 7 feet tall. Beyond this, we run into all kinds of square-cube-related problems. (This episode of Vsauce does a great job of explaining it in more detail.)

    ******** The old saying "The bigger they are, the harder they fall" actually understates reality: "The bigger they are, the exponentially harder they fall" is more like it.

This brings up another scientific quibble I've got with Ghostbusters. This guy:

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The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, clocking in at a scaled 34.3 meters tall, would not be able to support his own weight. He'd collapse into a pile of marshmallow fluff before the Boys in Gray even got a chance to reverse the particle flow through the gate.

That is, if it weren't for the fact that he is a supernatural entity whose presumed ectoplasmic skeleton can help him to defy the laws of physics. Egon's Twinkie, on the other hand, is not a supernatural entity: It's a real Twinkie, imagined to be scaled up

Let's say that we decide to ignore the plaintive cries of physics and go ahead and bake our Twinkie, in our giant tin, in a giant oven. While there's definitely a very slim chance that we'd survive the ordeal, we'd also be virtually guaranteed to wind up looking like this:

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And that, my friends, is why, no matter how much they tell you to back off, you never ask a scientist to do an engineer's job.*********

Ghostbusters is so unrealistic.

    ********* This article is now over 5,000 words long. My wife, Adri, and I recently started constructing this Ghostbusters Lego fire station, and it got me thinking about the relative scale of objects in that Lego world compared to the real world, and when we built the basement storage facility where the Twinkie scene takes place, I couldn't help but think about Lego-sized Twinkies and how they'd scale up. Some quick scribbles on the back of a Post-It note turned into a few hasty tweets. The math and the cooking sides of my head crossed streams, one thing led to another, and what was once a Twinkie-sized scribble on a Post-It note turned into this pointless article of incredible, even dangerous proportions. And that is why you never ask a 1980s pop culture geek with an obsessive personality to do a real writer's job.

Ghostbusters Twinkie Calculator

Want to know how much a scaled Twinkie would weigh at various lengths? Just type a length in the box on the left, and our handy Twinkie calculator will tell you!

THE OFFICIAL SERIOUS EATS TWINKIE SIZE CALCULATOR

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A Twinkie would weigh about .