Massive Binary Black Holes in the Cosmic Landscape
Binary black holes occupy a special place in our quest for understanding the evolution of galaxies along cosmic history. If massive black holes grow at the center of (pre-)galactic structures that experience a sequence of merger episodes, then dual black holes form as inescapable outcome of galaxy assembly, and can in principle be detected as powerful dual quasars. But, if the black holes reach coalescence, during their inspiral inside the galaxy remnant, then they become the loudest sources of gravitational waves ever in the universe. The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna is being developed to reveal these waves that carry information on the mass and spin of these binary black holes out to very large look-back times. Nature seems to provide a pathway for the formation of these exotic binaries, and a number of key questions need to be addressed: How do massive black holes pair in a merger? Depending on the properties of the underlying galaxies, do black holes always form a close Keplerian binary? If a binary forms, does hardening proceed down to the domain controlled by gravitational wave back reaction? What is the role played by gas and/or stars in braking the black holes, and on which timescale does coalescence occur? Can the black holes accrete on flight and shine during their pathway to coalescence? After outlining key observational facts on dual/binary black holes, we review the progress made in tracing their dynamics in the habitat of a gas-rich merger down to the smallest scales ever probed with the help of powerful numerical simulations. N-Body/hydrodynamical codes have proven to be vital tools for studying their evolution, and progress in this field is expected to grow rapidly in the effort to describe, in full realism, the physics of stars and gas around the black holes, starting from the cosmological large scale of a merger. If detected in the new window provided by the upcoming gravitational wave experiments, binary black holes will provide a deep view into the process of hierarchical clustering which is at the heart of the current paradigm of galaxy formation. They will also be exquisite probes for testing General Relativity, as the theory of gravity. The waveforms emitted during the inspiral, coalescence and ring-down phase carry in their shape the sign of a dynamically evolving space-time and the proof of the existence of an horizon.
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Document Type: Review Article
Publication date: February 1, 2011
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