Charpak was born August 1, 1924 in the village of Dąbrowica in Poland (modern Dubrovytsia, Ukraine) to a family of Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian ancestry. Charpak's family moved from Poland to Paris when he was seven years old.
During World War II Charpak served in the resistance and was imprisoned by Vichy authorities in 1943. In 1944 he was deported to the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, where he remained until the camp was liberated in 1945. After graduating from Lycée de Montpellier, in 1945 he joined the Paris-based École des Mines, one of the most prestigious engineering schools in France. The following year he became a naturalized French citizen.
He graduated and in 1948 he earned the Bachelor's degree in mining engineering and started working for the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). He received his doctorate in 1954 from Nuclear Physics at the College de France, Paris, where he worked in the laboratory of Frédéric Joliot-Curie. In 1959 he joined the staff of CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva and in 1984 also became Joliot-Curie professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Physics and Chemistry, Paris.
He was made a member of the French Academy of Science in 1985. In 1992, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics "for his invention and development of particle detectors, in particular the multiwire proportional chamber".
In France, Charpak is a very strong advocate for nuclear power.