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jungle engineers

Orangutans have remarkable engineering skills when it comes to making houses up in trees.

This we know from researchers at the University of Manchester who studied the apes in the forests of Sumatra. The scientists took orangutans' nests apart to see how they had been built.

The trick – if you're an orangutan replacing a nest nicked by an academic – is to bend large flexible branches into a strong scaffold and fill it with fine leafy branches to make a bed.

Mechanical tests by the academics revealed that orangutans chose branches based on their structural properties. I suspect years of trial and error might have been involved, with a lot of falling out of nests made with the wrong branches.

The orangutans set me thinking about my own life as an engineer. This is no slight on the Strathclyde University class of 1966, although some of our behaviour in the beer bar could have been described as ape-like.

To this day I don't know what made me think I could be an engineer. I was never handy as a boy, my role being to watch other people fix my bike. At school I never saw the inside of a techie room. Although I once spent six months at night classes making a rather shoddy perspex nameplate.

Ask how many Tom Shields it takes to replace a light bulb and the answer is an infinite number. No matter how many Tom Shields are involved, the light bulb will never be successfully replaced.

I spurned a perfectly sensible offer to study English and history and took up chemical engineering. My father was mildly amused as he watched me failing to open a tin of corn beef and asked: "Engineer, is it?"

As an engineering student, I coped with the theory. But I spent 18 miserable months in laboratories and workshops getting nothing to work. I broke everything I touched. Except stuff I was supposed to test to destruction and signally failed to destroy.

One day, watching a video of life in a cracker plant in Grangemouth I realised my potential for causing disaster on a vast scale. I ran away from engineering for the good of mankind.

My regret is that I wasted a student space that might have been taken up by a natural-born engineer.

Or even an orangutan.

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