The year at CERN has been dominated by preparations to restart the LHC and embark on explorations of the high-energy frontier. At the same time, the LHC machine has entered popular consciousness, with worldwide coverage in everything from science magazines to prime-time television.

To help answer the inevitable questions from family and friends, this edition of Bookshelf looks at two books that are aimed at explaining experiments at the LHC to a broader audience, as well as other books that could be considered as presents in this festive season.

Voyage to the Heart of Matter: the ATLAS Experiment at CERN by Anton Radevsky and Emma Sanders, Papadakis. Hardback ISBN 9781906506063, £20.

You would never guess from the title that Voyage to the Heart of Matter is a pop-up book about the Large Hadron Collider. And that is a shame because it is an extraordinary work of paper engineering that deserves to stand out on the soon-to-be crowded shelf of popular books about the LHC.

Written by pop-up-book author Anton Radevsky and manager of CERN’s Microcosm exhibition Emma Sanders, Voyage is only eight pages long yet each turn of the page reveals a pop-up spread that will have you gasping with joy. Most of the corners open up to reveal yet more 3D delights, including delicate reproductions of the ATLAS tracking detectors and a miniature control room, complete with physicists. Others reveal movable elements showing how matter and antimatter annihilate or how showers of particles develop in a calorimeter.

Voyage exploits all three dimensions to wonderful effect. A glorious pop-up universe charts cosmic evolution from the first microsecond, chock-full of quarks and leptons, to the galaxies of present day. Readers are even given the chance to unfurl the ATLAS detector and install the inner detectors and muon chambers.

What is so charming about Voyage is the level of detail in the illustrations. You are guaranteed to spot something new each time you read it: the tiny human standing next to ATLAS; the trigger room; and event displays on the physicists’ computer screens.

Voyage does have its flaws, though. For instance, some of the pop-up structures need a helping hand as you open and close the pages. A more serious problem is that the authors know too much about ATLAS and haven’t simplified the words enough for ordinary readers. This is all the more apparent because of the book’s layout: the words need to be read in order yet the book has so many flaps that there is no clear order. The various detector components would benefit from being labelled too. (One of the pop-up structures remains a mystery to me.)

On balance, the book’s charms outweigh its faults. It is somehow fitting that its complex paper engineering reflects the engineering achievements of ATLAS and the LHC. Voyage is an enchanting book.

Valerie Jamieson, deputy features editor, New Scientist.

Collider: The Search for the World’s Smallest Particles by Paul Halpern, Wiley. Hardback ISBN 9780470286203, €24.90 (£18.99, $27.95).

As well as opening a new era of fundamental physics research, the LHC is also making its mark on science publishing. There are already several books on the LHC – soon there will be more. Paul Halpern of Philadelphia’s University of the Sciences is a prolific author and has produced a book aimed at the North American market.

After a tourist’s introduction to CERN, Collider charts the history of the quest to discover and explain the structure of matter. Any book on particle physics has to shoulder this burden. Thus, in a book about 21st-century science, the first illustration is a portrait of Ernest Rutherford.

Unification, as a means to understand as much as possible from a minimal subset of axioms, is a central theme in physics. Halpern points out the aptness of CERN having its home in Switzerland. Just as the country successfully unifies different languages, religions and geographies, so can it be with physics: with imagination and insight, what superficially seems to be highly disparate, in fact reveals deep parallels.

As well as this theoretical understanding, Halpern also traces the history of the particle accelerators that probe the depths of the atomic nucleus and the detectors needed to capture and record their outcomes. After the Second World War, this science became very much a US speciality, with CERN trying to play catch-up as best it could.

With colliding-beam machines providing an additional stage for this research, it was Carlo Rubbia who helped propose the idea of a proton–antiproton collider. However, Fermilab in the US was committed to equipping its ring tunnel with superconducting magnets, so Rubbia knocked on CERN’s door instead.

There, prescient minds saw the value of the scheme. In 1983 came the landmark discovery of the W and Z particles – the carriers of the unified electroweak force (the Nobel path to a unified electroweak theory). With this collider, Europe had not only caught up but overtook the US, where it was a blow to national scientific prestige. As Halpern writes: "Like baseball, accelerator physics had become an American pastime, so it was like losing the World Series to Switzerland."

Piqued, the US mobilized for the mother of all colliders, its Superconducting Supercollider (SSC). Halpern recalls the SSC era and points out how the machine, primarily a US venture, was handicapped by its limited international horizon.

After the sudden cancellation of the SSC, the less ambitious LHC collider was alone on the world stage and CERN, itself an international organization, knew how to manage such ventures. The SSC had been a green-field site: CERN had the advantage of an existing tunnel, built to house its electron–positron collider, LEP. More credit should be given to the CERN pioneers who had presciently stressed right at the start that this tunnel should be made wide enough to accommodate big magnets for a later, more ambitious machine. Thanks to such foresight, the LHC could fit inside CERN’s existing subterranean real estate.

In 2008 the commissioning of the LHC was overshadowed by a puerile phobia: black holes from the machine would swallow the planet. Halpern creditably blows away such absurdity. It often appears as though the human race is not happy unless it has something to worry about. In 2009 the panic about purported black holes at the LHC seems to have become obscured by other worries.

Collider is timely, instructive and comprehensive. However, its transatlantic view of Europe sometimes gets a little out of focus. With a population of 7600, the thriving French town of Ferney-Voltaire near CERN is not "little touched by modernity". This "village" gives France the novelty of separate access to Geneva airport, and its proximity to the international scene in neighbouring Geneva has played a key role in the development of French secondary-school education. On a more important historical note, Isidor Rabi may have suggested the idea of what eventually became CERN, but he did not create it.

Gordon Fraser, Divonne-les-Bains.