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A select guide to great coffee-table books

A HISTORY OF EARTH IN 100 GROUNDBREAKING DISCOVERIES By Douglas Palmer (Firefly, 415 pages, $29.95) As far as we know, our solar system has given rise to life on one planet alone, our own. This paperback volume explores why this is so, explaining in detail the key scientific discoveries that have laid the basis of our current understanding. Spanning the moment of the Earth’s creation to the speculative future, Palmer’s lucid text lays out answers to the key questions.

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ANIMAL LIFE Secrets of the Animal World Revealed By Charlotte Uhlenbroek (American Museum of Natural History/DK, 512 pages, $30.95) A fascinating romp through the animal kingdom. Organized into three parts – Animal Kingdom, Animal Anatomy and Animal Behaviour – this book conveys information in an action-packed, visually stunning way. There is a lot to look at and a lot to learn. A must for your budding zoologist.

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ATLAS OF OCEANS An Ecological Survey of Underwater Life By John Farndon (Yale University Press, 256 pages, $50) A brilliant, lavishly illustrated and timely account of the evolution of the world’s marine bodies of water and the ecological disaster that is unfolding underneath, within and around them. Skillfully written for a general audience, the book reminds us we can not survive without healthy seas, and delivers a persuasive wake-up call.

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AURORAS Fire in the Sky By Dan Bortolotti, photos by Yuichi Takasaka (Firefly, 143 pages, $29.95) Beautiful photos of the strange dancing lights we too rarely see in our night sky, along with text explaining the controversies over the physics of the upper atmosphere. Aurora borealis are sometimes bright enough to cast shadows on the ground, we learn, and the most intense and unusual are red – which caused terror in medieval times. An intense solar storm in March, 1989, led not only to spectacular auroras, but caused a nine-hour power outage in Quebec.

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BENEATH COLD SEAS The Underwater Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest By David Hall (GreyStone, 160 pages, $45) You won’t find SpongeBob SquarePants here, but you will find great photos of critters and phenomena from the deepest deeps of the Pacific Northwest. There isn’t much light down there, and that makes these photos (and the colours!) of kelp forests and “scalyhead sculpin” that much more remarkable.

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DECEPTIVE BEAUTIES The World of Wild Orchids By Christian Ziegler (University of Chicago, 180 pages, $45) Its apparent fragility – and stunning beauty – belies the cut-throat survival stratagems of this street-fighting flower. The orchid, in its march from the top of the rain-forest canopy to Arctic circle austerity, has yet to find a habitat it can't tackle. Tiny seeds pair with ground fungi to provide nutrients for young flowers to sprout broad petals that serve as “landing strips” for pollinating insects.

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ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TROPICAL PLANTS Identification and Cultivation of Over 3,000 Tropical Plants By Ahmed Fayaz (Firefly, 720 pages, $75) This book, with its lovely illustrations, is for winter nights when you dream of having a conservatory, or for any time of the year when you are trying to coax tropical plants in your garden. The introduction explains presentation in alphabetic order of genera, species arranged in family order to make it easier to compare plants. And it has helpful separate indices of common and botanical names as well as a glossary.

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FROZEN PLANET A World Beyond Imagination By Alastair Fothergill and Vanessa Berlowitz (Firefly, 312 pages, $39.95) The companion to the third instalment of the BBC Earth series lands just in time for winter. Featuring top-notch field photography, it follows the life cycles of the environment and its animal inhabitants in polar regions. It explores hitherto restricted areas of the Russian Arctic and, of course, Canada’s North: a pictorial sequence of a pack of wolves tracking and attacking bison is particularly arresting.

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SCIENCE The Definitive Visual Guide Edited by Adam Hart-Davis (DK, 512 pages, $27.95) From prehistory to present day, significant scientific findings are laid out in this visually rich edition. Photographs, drawings and graphics expertly aid our understanding of discoveries. The chronological structure lets us see how earlier scientific discoveries often became the base of later, related breakthroughs.

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THE BOOK OF THE WIND The Representation of the Invisible By Alessandro Nova (McGill-Queen’s, 223 pages, $75) How can we depict what we cannot see? This challenge has long fascinated artists intent on capturing the wind – the godlike force with powers of life and death. From luminous ancient sculptures to gleaming medieval manuscripts to swirling satellite images of El Nino, this sumptuous book explores the iconic role of wind in art and literature.

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THE PHYSICS BOOK From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics By Clifford A. Pickover (Sterling, 528 pages, $32.95) If you have family debates over string theory, this is probably a tad simple for you. But if you’re looking for an overview of the Big Ideas – and the subatomic ones – this book is a treat. Illustrated and arranged in chronological order, it’ll give you a leg up on your kid’s science homework – or the next cocktail party.

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VIOLENT EARTH Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Mudslides, Tsunamis By Robert Dinwiddie et al. (DK/Smithsonian, 360 pages, $45) A topical, lavishly illustrated survey, incorporating the latest in scientific consensus, of the disasters to which Mother Earth is prone. Includes sections on the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Christchurch, Japan’s tsunami in 2011 and the 2010 floods in Pakistan, as well as explanations of Hurricane Katrina, ocean-floor tectonics and the origins of volcanoes.

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