Carlos Frenk was born in Mexico City in 1951, the son of a Mexican pianist and chemist and a German doctor who had fled to Mexico before World War Two. He earned a degree in Physics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1976. He then went to Cambridge, where he read Part III of the Mathematical Tripos in 1977 and received a Ph.D. in astrophysics in 1981.
In the 1980s, Frenk was part of a collaboration—with Marc Davis, George Efstathiou, and Simon White—that established the validity of the "cold dark matter" theory for the formation of galaxies and other cosmic structures, now the accepted interpretation in cosmology. In a classic series of papers, that collaboration—often called DEFW by their peers—used computer simulations to recreate the growth of the universe and resolve disputes among theoretical models.
Frenk worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, first in Berkeley from 1981 to 1983, then in Santa Barbara from 1983 to 1984. He also served as a postdoc at Sussex University from 1984 to 1985. The following year he was appointed Lecturer at the University of Durham, where, in 2001, he was appointed to the Ogden Chair of Fundamental Physics.
In 2001 Frenk became the founding director of Durham's Institute for Computational Cosmology, where he has continued to specialize in large supercomputer simulations of the formation history of the universe.
He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2004. He has received a Nuffield Foundation Scientific Research Fellowship, the Daniel Chalonge Medal from the Observatoire de Paris, and the Hoyle Medal and Prize from the Institute of Physics, among numerous other prizes and awards. In recent years Frenk has been using computer simulations to explore the cold dark matter model in the previously inaccessible regime of the Milky Way and its satellite galaxies.