Saturday, 31 December 2011

Ambiguous new year!

Today, I shall be hearing the phrase 'Happy new year' a lot. I don't like it. 

I appreciate the sentiment behind it, when it is said to mean 'I hope you have a happy new year', often shortened to just 'happy new year', which is less specific but you can usually tell what is meant by it. 

Ironically, saying 'happy new year' before the new year has actually started is one way of telling that it's intended to mean 'I hope the new year is a happy one for you'. Obviously as the old year is still currently happening, by default it requires a forward-looking, predictive element to the statement. Ergo, it obviously means the person saying it wants you to experience happiness in the new year. A cynic might suggest that this will inevitably happen at some point, as given the length of a year it's highly likely that some parts of it will be happy ones. It's possible to have an entirely miserable year, but in Western society by and large this is statistically unlikely.

So, when someone says 'happy new year' to me before midnight on new year's eve, I interpret that as them saying 'I hope the new year is a happy one for you to an extent that is beyond that anticipated by normal statistical likelihood'. Hypocritically of me though, if someone did actually say that in full, I'd be quite alarmed.

However, I do take issue with the phrase 'Happy new year' when used on Midnight on new years eve, and on most of new year's day. Because it's not a prediction then, it's a statement. And it's an inaccurate one, to say the least. As soon as the clock hits 12 on NYE, everyone starts saying happy new year as if it's an established fact. It isn't.

If you say 'happy new year' as the clock hits 12, what you are saying is 'the new year is here, and it's a happy one'. This, based on about 11 seconds of the year having actually passed. Undoubtedly, as you're probably at a party with friends and in a cheerful, inebriated state, they probably have been 11 happy seconds. But that's nowhere near a big enough sample to base such a firm conclusion on. A year is 31,557,600 seconds long. So, based on the initial 11 seconds, you've decided that the remaining 31,557,589 seconds will are definitely going to be happy ones? More fool you, that's not how things work at all. That's like declaring the winner of a marathon before most of the runners have even crossed the starting line, or crowning the winner of Masterchef before they've even got to the kitchen, based on the fact that you've spotted that one of the contestants is using an ingredient that you like. Such blasé attitudes annoy me, they aren't helpful. 

Officially, if you're going to be declaring whether a year is happy or not, you should at least base your decision on the data provided by how half of the year has been. So the phrase 'Happy new year', in order to be a valid one, should be used around mid-June at the earliest, because then you have a decent body of data to go on, but you may also have noticed trends in the years progress and have an awareness of upcoming events.

However, stating it in mid-June means that the 'new' element of 'Happy new year' is now redundant and completely inaccurate. So, overall, there is now point where 'Happy new year' used as a statement rather than a prediction can be accurate. And as a scientist, I try to discourage inaccuracy wherever I can.

"Ah, but Dean", you may say, "you say you don't like inaccuracy, but earlier you said a year is 31,557,600 seconds long, when 60 secs x 60 (mins) x 24 (hours) x 365 (days) is actually 31,536,000 seconds, so surely your own accuracy needs more work?"

And I'd say yes, surprisingly observant and pedantic commenter, your maths is impeccable, but you have also overlooked the fact that, in astrological terms, the Earth orbits the sun every 365.25 days, this is why we have leap years. And even if you ignore the astronomical element, you have to take into account that every 4th year is 366 days long, so overall the average year is 365.25 days long, which is 31,557,600 seconds long. So, my accuracy is even more extreme than you realised, not less. But thanks for your concern.

So bear all this in mind, and when you're at a party and midnight rolls around, and someone says 'Happy new year' to you, you can tell them in detail why their statement is flawed, and I'm sure they'll thank you for it. 

That's what I would do. But I don't get invited to new year's eve parties any more, for some reason.

Twitter: @garwboy

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