Professor Sarnak was born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1953. He obtained his bachelors degree from University of Witwatersrand in 1975 and his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1980.
He joined the Courant Institute as an assistant professor in 1980, becoming an associate professor in 1983. He moved to Stanford University as a Professor in 1987. In 1989 he was the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished scholar at Caltech. Since 1991 he has been a professor of mathematics at Princeton University. There he was the H. Fine Professor from 1995-6, Department Chair from 1996-9 and since 2002 is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Mathematics. Between 1999 and 2002 he was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and since 2001 he is also a Professor of Mathematics at the Courant Institute.
Professor Sarnak has received numerous awards and honours including being a Sloan Fellow (1983-5) and a Presidential Young Investigator (1985-90). He was awarded the Polya Prize by SIAM in 1998, the Ostrowski prize from the Ostrowski Foundation in 2001 and the Levi L. Conant Prize of AMS in 2003. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991 and both as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) and as a Fellow of the Royal Society (UK) in 2002.
He has published more than 90 academic journal papers, and written several books, and edited several more, as well as supervising more than thirty (thirty two at last count) PhD students.
His main interests are in the theory of zeta functions with applications to number theory, mathematical physics and automorphic forms. His citation on election to the Royal Society states that he is ''distinguished for his major contributions to analysis and number theory. He is widely recognised internationally as one of the leading analytic number theorists of his generation. His early work on the existence of cusp forms led to the disproof of a conjecture of Selberg. He has obtained the strongest known bounds towards the Ramanujan conjectures for sparse graphs and he was one of the first to exploit connections between certain questions in theoretical physics and analytic number theory."