Black holes in galaxy mergers: Evolution of quasars

Philip F. Hopkins, Lars Hernquist, Thomas J. Cox, Tiziana Di Matteo, Paul Martini, Brant Robertson, Volker Springel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

480 Scopus citations


Based on numerical simulations of gas-rich galaxy mergers, we discuss a model in which quasar activity is tied to the self-regulated growth of supermassive black holes in galaxies. The nuclear inflow of gas attending a galaxy collision triggers a starburst and feeds black hole growth, but for most of the duration of the starburst, the black hole is "buried," being heavily obscured by surrounding gas and dust, limiting the visibility of the quasar, especially at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths. As the black hole grows, feedback energy from accretion heats the gas and eventually expels it in a powerful wind, leaving behind a "dead quasar." Between the buried and dead phases, there is a window in time during which the galaxy would be seen as a luminous quasar. Because the black hole mass, radiative output, and distribution of obscuring gas and dust all evolve strongly with time, the duration of this phase of observable quasar activity depends on both the waveband and imposed luminosity threshold. We determine the observed and intrinsic lifetimes as a function of luminosity and frequency, and calculate observable lifetimes ∼10 Myr for bright quasars in the optical B band, in good agreement with empirical estimates and much smaller than our estimated black hole growth timescales ∼ 100 Myr, naturally producing a substantial population of buried quasars. However, the observed and intrinsic energy outputs converge in the IR and hard X-ray bands as attenuation becomes weaker and chances of observation greatly increase. We also obtain the distribution of column densities along sight lines in which the quasar is seen above a given luminosity, and find that our result agrees remarkably well with observed estimates of the column density distribution from the SDSS for the appropriate luminosity thresholds. Our model reproduces a wide range of quasar phenomena, including observed quasar lifetimes, intrinsic lifetimes, column density distributions, and differences between optical and X-ray samples, having properties consistent with observations across more than 5 orders of magnitude in bolometric luminosity from 109 to 1014 L (-17 ≲ MB ≲ -30).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)705-715
Number of pages11
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2 I
StatePublished - Sep 10 2005


  • Cosmology: theory
  • Galaxies: active
  • Galaxies: evolution
  • Galaxies: nuclei
  • Quasars: general

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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