Atmospheric lensing effects deform our view of distant objects; similarly, without any doubt, gravitational lensing perturbs our view of the distant Universe and affects our physical understanding of various classes of extragalactic objects. We summarize here part of the theoretical and observational evidences supporting these claims.
After briefly reviewing the history of gravitational lenses, we recall the basic principles underlying the formation of gravitationally lensed images of distant cosmic sources. We describe a simple optical lens experiment, which was actually shown during the oral discourse, and which accounts for all types of presently known gravitational lens systems.
The various optical and radio searches for new gravitational lens systems that are being carried out at major observatories are reviewed. State-of-the-art observations of selected gravitational lens systems, obtained with highly performing ground-based telescopes, are then presented. These include several examples of multiply imaged QSO images, radio rings and giant luminous arcs.
Through the modeling of these enigmatic objects, we show how it is possible to weigh the mass of distant lensing galaxies as well as to probe the distribution of luminous and dark matter in the Universe. Among the astrophysical and cosmological interests of observing and studying gravitational lenses, we also discuss the possibility of deriving the value of the Hubble parameter Ho from the measurement of a time delay, and how to determine the size and structure of distant quasars via the observational study of micro-lensing effects.
At the end of this paper, we conclude on how to possibly achieve major astro-physical and cosmological goals in the near future by dedicating, on a site with good atmospheric seeing conditions, a medium size (2-3 m) telescope to the photometric monitoring of the multiple images of known and suspected gravitational lens systems.