Nasar was born in Rosenheim, Germany, to a Bavarian mother and an Uzbek father, Rusi Nasar, who later joined the CIA as an intelligence officer. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1951, then moved to Ankara, Turkey, in 1960. She graduated with a BA in Literature from Antioch College in 1970 and earned a Master's degree in Economics at New York University in 1976. For 4 years, she did research with Nobel Laureate Wassily Leontief. She joined Fortune magazine as a staff writer in 1983, became a columnist for U.S. News & World Report in 1990, and was an economic correspondent for the New York Times from 1991 to 1999. She has been the first John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at Columbia University since 2001.
In March 2013, Nasar filed a lawsuit accusing the university of misdirecting $4.5 million in funds over the last decade from the same Knight endowment which pays her salary. The New York Times reported, "In her suit, Ms. Nasar said that after she complained about the misspent funds, [a Columbia University official] “intimidated and harassed” her by telling her that the Knight Foundation “was dissatisfied with her performance as Knight chair because Knight objected to her work on books.”
In 1998, Nasar published A Beautiful Mind, a biography of Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. The book describes many aspects of Nash's life, examines his personality and motivations, and deals with the stresses placed on his personal and professional relationships by severe mental illness. The book won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography.
Nasar's second book, Grand Pursuit, was published in 2011. It is a historical narrative which sets forth Nasar's view that economics rescued mankind from squalor and deprivation by placing its material circumstances in its own hands rather than in Fate. It won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Science and technology.
On 28 August 2006 The New Yorker published Nasar's article "Manifold Destiny", which contained the only interview with Grigori Perelman, who solved the Poincaré conjecture and declined the 2006 Fields Medal. The article examined Fields Medalist S.T. Yau's response to Perelman's proof. Some mathematicians wrote letters in defense of Yau over Nasar's portrayal, and Yau threatened to file a lawsuit, but no suit was filed.
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