Newton’s Fourth Law

This is an older story, but, in my humble opinion, a really, really good one. It originally appeared on the Internet BMW Riders List, and was subsequently reprinted by Motorcycle Times, a Maryland based motorcycle newspaper.

The reason I’m republishing it is an adventure I had yesterday — one involving a lot of smoke, a small amount of fire, and a fairly long term cessation of forward motion.  More details are forthcoming, but this will help to provide some context.

In the meantime, if your motorcycle inexplicably fixed itself yesterday, you have me to thank for it.

You’re welcome.


Motorcyclists, generally, tend to understand the laws of physics, or they don’t exist as motorcyclists (or living humans, for that matter) for very long. I know I do, but I try to never generalize about the human experience from the extremely small sample set of my parochial experience. I also know that when I went down to the Maryland DMV to try to get “RollingPhysicsProblem” registered as a vanity tag for my R90S, the DMV folks laughed at me, and trying to make it fit within the characters available only resulted in some of those impenetrable acronym things that result either in you driving off the road or rear-ending the doofus with the special license plate, and made the DMV folks laugh at me some more, only harder.

Ok, so competent motorcyclists know Newton’s three laws of motion.

Objects at rest stay at rest – objects in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by by an outside force. Check.

Acceleration of a moving body is proportional to that outside force applied, and inversely proportional to that mass of the moving body. No Problem. Check.

When two bodies interact with each other, action and reaction forces are equal in magnitude, but act in opposite directions. Piece-a-cake. Nyet prahblema. Check.

But most motorcyclists don’t know that, like most true geeks, Newton wasn’t much on writing documentation. Newton had a few other laws, but they only got written down on napkins from Chipotle, and we all know what happens to those.

Newton’s unknown fourth law goes something like this. The amount of stuff which works in the universe, and the amount of stuff with ‘out-of-order’ signs hung on it, totals to a constant. If you fix something, something else in the universe will break so that its still totals that constant. People love slogans, so the easy way to think of this is ‘The conservation of screwed’.

At this point, I may be getting arcane, so an explanation is clearly in order.

I still ride my R75/5 toaster tank nearly every day. There are newer bikes in the garage but for daily transport the Toaster is ideal for round town excursions, occasional small dirt road adventures, and, with its solo saddle set up, it will easily carry bulky stuff like 50 pound bags of cat food over the back fender and between the saddlecases. Any bike that has been on the road nonstop since 1973 has at least a few little flaws that someone biased can just call ‘character’. Perfection, in Islam, is reserved for the lord alone – One sees these in the deliberate flaw woven into Persian carpets. My toaster tank isn’t causing the Godhead any lost sleep about the perfection franchise.

The Toaster’s flaw, of late, had been an odometer that had gone completely berserk. At some point, it seems like all of the digits in the odo had just lost track of each other… one would go out on a ride with 67,000 and some odd miles showing on the cluster, and would return home with 42,000. I’ve had to rework this instrument at least 3 time since 1983, when I bought the bike, so this wasn’t really in any way shocking.

What was shocking was what happened next, though. Yesterday in Maryland was Heat Wave Hostage Crisis day 13… we’ve had a run of 98-108 degree days that is really a tad unusual for this area. I get stir crazy if more than a day or two goes by without a ride, so I riffled through my lame excuse for a ride file, and found my daughter’s Nissan Cube overdue for an oil change, so decided on a ride to town for a few quarts and a filter. I threw a 2 quart insulated water jug in one of the saddle bags, grabbed my Vanson Way Ventilated SuperMoto jacket, and rode the Toaster up to town. While I was there, I realized our bird feeders were empty, and added a 25 of seed to the bike’s cargo area.

On the way back, I decided that the heat wasn’t really that bad with 45-50 mph of wind added, so I elected to take a slightly scenic route home.

And that’s when things got weird.

Running down New Design Road, I looked at my odometer. At that moment, I was running through the numbers to the next thousand — 998 — 999 — 1000. And when the odo turned through that thousand, the numbers in the cluster appeared to marry back up, the thousands digits stopped dancing randomly, and the whole thing went back to working as its maker intended.

“HA!”, quoth I, “How often does that happen? That sucker JUST FIXED ITSELF!”

A strange feeling of preternatural satisfaction came over me. Riding bikes is usually an exercise in things breaking, not things fixing themselves. I was probably observable to be feeling pretty smug from a distance of 50 yards.

And that’s when things immediately righted themselves and, by becoming unweird, got really weird.

New Design road is likely called that because it was the first straight road anyone ever built here. Rolling down New Design road, on a 100 degree day, was a visual feast — raptors circling in the rising air, hay balers PHOOMFing out bales every 3 seconds or so, the double yellow rolling from one bluff to the top of the next. So there I was, about 3600 RPM in the fat spot of 4th gear, enjoying my self made breeze without a care in the world. And that was when the lights on my Motometer all went black and the engine stalled as we were rolling at 50 down a arrow straight road.

Remember ‘The Conservation of Screwed?’.

Lots of things go wrong with old motorcycles. But total loss of electrical power without warning while running on a 100 degree day is almost always a battery that has decided to melt down no matter how you might feel about that.

After drifting to a stop, then pushing the bike across the road into a flat, shady spot across the highway, I did a few tests that confirmed my battery had failed. As I was standing there, literally scratching my head and weighing my options, a white Suburban pulled over and a white haired Gentleman leaned out the window and asked if I needed anything. I asked if he had a few seconds to drive me back to the WalMart I had just left. He said he did.

On the way back up NewDesign, John and I had lots of fun talking about his old motorcycles, and my old motorcycles, and the fun we’d had when things like this happened.

20 minutes after John had pulled up, I was standing back beside the bike with a new battery and tools in hand. I thanked him profusely and gave him the old Irish blessing. He accepted my thanks and just told me, “Pay it forward, man.”

A few minutes of removing the airbox later, I pulled the dead lead and was putting the new one in its place. As I’m started to reattach things, another Samaritan appeared — Patrick worked at the tree service at the end of the road and had stopped to make sure I had water. Once I said I had things under control he said he was a dirtbike guy and kept the conversation going as he got around the other side and ghosted what I was doing on my side of the bike. It was like he’d been working with me on BMWs his whole life. So after 10 minutes that would have been 20, I tested the starter and the bike fired right up. I killed it, put the tank back on, threw the side covers in my bags, put the saddle and cases back on, and shared some cold water and a handshake with Patrick, then fired up and rode home.

Having succeeded in my roadside diagnosis and repair, I was probably again observable to be feeling pretty smug from a distance of 50 yards.

So this is always the point where my inner stentorian voice asks, “So what have we learned?”.

I know that dropping a battery on your index finger will make you cry and wish you were young enough to ask for your mommy. And I also know that even if you did that and she showed up it still wouldn’t get you off the side of the road.

I also know that no matter how bad people tell you things get, that there is always at least one old biker looking out for you when things go straight to sheet. That old biker might even be me, ’cause I got to pay it forward again.

And I really know that when things start fixing themselves, you’d better sharpen up and start paying attention, because Newton’s fourth law says that the amount of screwed in the universe is a constant, and something else is just about to break.



One thought on “Newton’s Fourth Law

  1. just loved your story and your annalagies and the artful parallels you draw
    There is Murphy’s law everything that can go wrong will go wrong
    And there is Brian smiths law
    Murphy was a optimist

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