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When light goes astray: gravitational lensing in astrophysics

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Light propagating in an inhomogeneous medium does not travel in straight lines. Light rays wander; they are focused, magnified and dispersed as they travel through an inhomogeneous medium. Such deflections are familiar to physicists. They are the stuff of optics. On cosmic scales light is 'deflected' in a more profound way, tracing inhomogeneities in the underlying space–time. The meandering of light rays as they propagate through the Universe encodes unique information about variations in the space–time metric. General relativity tells us these variations are impressed on the metric by inhomogeneities in the matter distribution. As a result, this 'gravitational lensing' provides information about the distribution of mass in the Universe. In this work we review briefly the main features of gravitational lensing, with an emphasis on observable effects. Remarkable progress has been made in lensing observations since 1990. We discuss some aspects of this rapid development, commenting especially on astrophysical topics where lensing studies have had a major impact. We suggest that gravitational lensing is now a standard part of the astrophysical toolkit, akin in some ways to photometry. We conclude with a discussion of areas in which lensing studies will have a strong impact in years to come, and comment on technical requirements for these future studies.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: November 1, 2002

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