1 Introduction

In its most general sense, gravitational lensing is a collective term for all effects of a gravitational field on the propagation of electromagnetic radiation, with the latter usually described in terms of rays. According to general relativity, the gravitational field is coded in a metric of Lorentzian signature on the 4-dimensional spacetime manifold, and the light rays are the lightlike geodesics of this spacetime metric. From a mathematical point of view, the theory of gravitational lensing is thus the theory of lightlike geodesics in a 4-dimensional manifold with a Lorentzian metric.

The first observation of a ‘gravitational lensing’ effect was made when the deflection of star light by our Sun was verified during a Solar eclipse in 1919. Today, the list of observed phenomena includes the following:

Multiple quasars.
The gravitational field of a galaxy (or a cluster of galaxies) bends the light from a distant quasar in such a way that the observer on Earth sees two or more images of the quasar.

Rings.
An extended light source, like a galaxy or a lobe of a galaxy, is distorted into a closed or almost closed ring by the gravitational field of an intervening galaxy. This phenomenon occurs in situations where the gravitational field is almost rotationally symmetric, with observer and light source close to the axis of symmetry. It is observed primarily, but not exclusively, in the radio range.

Arcs.
Distant galaxies are distorted into arcs by the gravitational field of an intervening cluster of galaxies. Here the situation is less symmetric than in the case of rings. The effect is observed in the optical range and may produce “giant luminous arcs”, typically of a characteristic blue color.

Microlensing.
When a light source passes behind a compact mass, the focusing effect on the light leads to a temporal change in brightness (energy flux). This microlensing effect is routinely observed since the early 1990s by monitoring a large number of stars in the bulge of our Galaxy, in the Magellanic Clouds and in the Andromeda galaxy. Microlensing has also been observed on quasars.

Image distortion by weak lensing.
In cases where the distortion effect on galaxies is too weak for producing rings or arcs, it can be verified with statistical methods. By evaluating the shape of a large number of background galaxies in the field of a galaxy cluster, one can determine the surface mass density of the cluster. By evaluating fields without a foreground cluster one gets information about the large-scale mass distribution.

Observational aspects of gravitational lensing and methods of how to use lensing as a tool in astrophysics are the subject of the Living Review by Wambsganss [343Jump To The Next Citation Point]. There the reader may also find some notes on the history of lensing.

The present review is meant as complementary to the review by Wambsganss. While all the theoretical methods reviewed in [343Jump To The Next Citation Point] rely on quasi-Newtonian approximations, the present review is devoted to the theory of gravitational lensing from a spaectime perspective, without such approximations. Here the terminology is as follows: “Lensing from a spacetime perspective” means that light propagation is described in terms of lightlike geodesics of a general-relativistic spacetime metric, without further approximations. (The term “non-perturbative lensing” is sometimes used in the same sense.) “Quasi-Newtonian approximation” means that the general-relativistic spacetime formalism is reduced by approximative assumptions to essentially Newtonian terms (Newtonian space, Newtonian time, Newtonian gravitational field). The quasi-Newtonian approximation formalism of lensing comes in several variants, and the relation to the exact formalism is not always evident because sometimes plausibility and ad-hoc assumptions are implicitly made. A common feature of all variants is that they are “weak-field approximations” in the sense that the spacetime metric is decomposed into a background (“spacetime without the lens”) and a small perturbation of this background (“gravitational field of the lens”). For the background one usually chooses either Minkowski spacetime (isolated lens) or a spatially flat Robertson–Walker spacetime (lens embedded in a cosmological model). The background then defines a Euclidean 3-space, similar to Newtonian space, and the gravitational field of the lens is similar to a Newtonian gravitational field on this Euclidean 3-space. Treating the lens as a small perturbation of the background means that the gravitational field of the lens is weak and causes only a small deviation of the light rays from the straight lines in Euclidean 3-space. In its most traditional version, the formalism assumes in addition that the lens is “thin”, and that the lens and the light sources are at rest in Euclidean 3-space, but there are also variants for “thick” and moving lenses. Also, modifications for a spatially curved Robertson–Walker background exist, but in all variants a non-trivial topological or causal structure of spacetime is (explicitly or implicitly) excluded. At the center of the quasi-Newtonian formalism is a “lens equation” or “lens map”, which relates the position of a “lensed image” to the position of the corresponding “unlensed image”. In the most traditional version one considers a thin lens at rest, modeled by a Newtonian gravitational potential given on a plane in Euclidean 3-space (“lens plane”). The light rays are taken to be straight lines in Euclidean 3-space except for a sharp bend at the lens plane. For a fixed observer and light sources distributed on a plane parallel to the lens plane (“source plane”), the lens map is then a map from the lens plane to the source plane. In this way, the geometric spacetime setting of general relativity is completely covered behind a curtain of approximations, and one is left simply with a map from a plane to a plane. Details of the quasi-Newtonian approximation formalism can be found not only in the above-mentioned Living Review [343Jump To The Next Citation Point], but also in the monographs of Schneider, Ehlers, and Falco [298Jump To The Next Citation Point] and Petters, Levine, and Wambsganss [275Jump To The Next Citation Point].

The quasi-Newtonian approximation formalism has proven very successful for using gravitational lensing as a tool in astrophysics. This is impressively demonstrated by the work reviewed in [343Jump To The Next Citation Point]. On the other hand, studying lensing from a spacetime perspective is of relevance under three aspects:

Didactical.
The theoretical foundations of lensing can be properly formulated only in terms of the full formalism of general relativity. Working out examples with strong curvature and with non-trivial causal or topological structure demonstrates that, in principle, lensing situations can be much more complicated than suggested by the quasi-Newtonian formalism.

Methodological.
General theorems on lensing (e.g., criteria for multiple imaging, characterizations of caustics, etc.) should be formulated within the exact spacetime setting of general relativity, if possible, to make sure that they are not just an artifact of approximative assumptions. For those results which do not hold in arbitrary spacetimes, one should try to find the precise conditions on the spacetime under which they are true.

Practical.
There are some situations of astrophysical interest to which the quasi-Newtonian formalism does not apply. For instance, near a black hole light rays are so strongly bent that, in principle, they can make arbitrarily many turns around the hole. Clearly, in this situation it is impossible to use the quasi-Newtonian formalism which would treat these light rays as small perturbations of straight lines.

The present review tries to elucidate all three aspects. More precisely, the following subjects will be covered:

This introduction ends with some notes on subjects not covered in this review:

Wave optics.
In the electromagnetic theory, light is described by wavelike solutions to Maxwell’s equations. The ray-optical treatment used throughout this review is the standard high-frequency approximation (geometric optics approximation) of the electromagnetic theory for light propagation in vacuum on a general-relativistic spacetime (see, e.g., [226Jump To The Next Citation Point], § 22.5 or [298Jump To The Next Citation Point], Section 3.2). (Other notions of vacuum light rays, based on a different approximation procedure, have been occasionally suggested [218], but will not be considered here. Also, results specific to spacetime dimensions other than four or to gravitational theories other than Einstein’s are not covered.) For most applications to lensing the ray-optical treatment is valid and appropriate. An exception, where wave-optical corrections are necessary, is the calculation of the brightness of images if a light source comes very close to the caustic of the observer’s light cone (see Section 2.6).

Light propagation in matter.
If light is directly influenced by a medium, the light rays are no longer the lightlike geodesics of the spacetime metric. For an isotropic non-dispersive medium, they are the lightlike geodesics of another metric which is again of Lorentzian signature. (This “optical metric” was introduced by Gordon [142]. For a rigourous derivation, starting from Maxwell’s equation in an isotropic non-dispersive medium, see Ehlers [88Jump To The Next Citation Point].) Hence, the formalism used throughout this review still applies to this situation after an appropriate re-interpretation of the metric. In anisotropic or dispersive media, however, the light rays are not the lightlike geodesics of a Lorentzian metric. There are some lensing situations where the influence of matter has to be taken into account. For instance., for the deflection of radio signals by our Sun the influence of the plasma in the Solar corona (to be treated as a dispersive medium) is very well measurable. However, such situations will not be considered in this review. For light propagation in media on a general-relativistic spacetime, see [269] and references cited therein.

Kinetic theory.
As an alternative to the (geometric optics approximation of) electromagnetic theory, light can be treated as a photon gas, using the formalism of kinetic theory. This has relevance, e.g., for the cosmic background radiation. For basic notions of general-relativistic kinetic theory see, e.g., [89Jump To The Next Citation Point]. Apart from some occasional remarks, kinetic theory will not be considered in this review.

Derivation of the quasi-Newtonian formalism.
It is not satisfacory if the quasi-Newtonian formalism of lensing is set up with the help of ad-hoc assumptions, even if the latter look plausible. From a methodological point of view, it is more desirable to start from the exact spacetime setting of general relativity and to derive the quasi-Newtonian lens equation by a well-defined approximation procedure. In comparison to earlier such derivations [298Jump To The Next Citation Point293302Jump To The Next Citation Point] more recent effort has led to considerable improvements. For lenses embedded in a cosmological model, see Pyne and Birkinshaw [284Jump To The Next Citation Point] who consider lenses that need not be thin and may be moving on a Robertson–Walker background (with positive, negative, or zero spatial curvature). For the non-cosmological situation, a Lorentz covariant approximation formalism was derived by Kopeikin and Schäfer [184]. Here Minkowski spacetime is taken as the background, and again the lenses need not be thin and may be moving.


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