The importance of broad emission line widths in single-epoch black hole mass estimates

R. J. Assef, S. Frank, C. J. Grier, C. S. Kochanek, K. D. Denney, B. M. Peterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Estimates of the mass of super-massive black holes (BHs) in distant active galactic nuclei (AGNs) can be obtained efficiently only through single-epoch (SE) spectra, using a combination of their broad emission line widths and continuum luminosities. Yet the reliability and accuracy of the method and the resulting mass estimates, M BH, remain uncertain. A recent study by Croom using a sample of Sloan Digital Sky Survey, 2dF QSO Redshift Survey, and 2dF-SDSS LRG and QSO Survey quasars suggests that line widths contribute little information about the BH mass in these SE estimates and can be replaced by a constant value without significant loss of accuracy. In this Letter, we use a sample of nearby reverberation-mapped AGNs to show that this conclusion is not universally applicable. We use the bulge luminosity (L Bulge) of these local objects to test how well the known M BH-L Bulge correlation is recovered when using randomly assigned line widths instead of the measured ones to estimate M BH. We find that line widths provide significant information about M BH, and that for this sample, the line width information is just as significant as that provided by the continuum luminosities. We discuss the effects of observational biases upon the analysis of Croom and suggest that the results can probably be explained as a bias of flux-limited, shallow quasar samples.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberL2
JournalAstrophysical Journal Letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • galaxies: active
  • quasars: emission lines

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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