In his youth, before he became a celebrated writer, Primo Levi used to work as a chemist in the manufactory of paints and varnishes. As he explained on several occasions, he was particularly fond of the figure of the centaur, an ambiguous monster in which two apparently incompatible bodies are merged. For Levi, these two parts stood above all for the incompatible worlds of science and literature, the art of chemistry and the art of storytelling. But the centaur, in its duality, also has much to tell us about the complex and fecund encounter between the minds of human beings and the untameable matter that surrounds them.

Today the word ‘interface’ has entered into common usage, but in a slightly different sense from the one it has in chemistry and materials science. We often use it to describe our interactions with new digital…