Martini, P. 2003, invited review to appear in "Carnegie Observatories Astrophysics Series, Vol. 1: Coevolution of Black Holes and Galaxies," ed. L. C. Ho (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press)
The QSO lifetime t_Q is one of the most fundamental quantities for understanding black hole and QSO evolution, yet it remains uncertain by several orders of magnitude. If t_Q is long, then only a small fraction of galaxies went through a luminous QSO phase. In contrast, a short lifetime would require most galaxies today to have undergone a QSO phase in their youth. The current best estimates or constraints on t_Q from black hole demographics and the radiative properties of QSOs vary from at least 10^6 to 10^8 years. This broad range still allows both possibilities: that QSOs were either a rare or a common stage of galaxy evolution. These constraints also do not rule out the possibility that QSO activity is episodic, with individual active periods much shorter than the total active lifetime.
In the next few years a variety of additional observational constraints on the lifetimes of QSOs will become available, including clustering measurements and the proximity effect. These new constraints can potentially determine t_Q to within a factor of 3 and therefore answer one of the most fundamental questions in black hole evolution: Do they shine as they grow? This precision will also test the viability of our current model for accretion physics, specifically the radiative efficiency and need for super-Eddington luminosities to explain the black hole population.
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