Hawking Radiation Explained: Understanding Black Hole Evaporation


Physicist Stephen Hawking first proposed this groundbreaking theory of Hawking radiation in 1974, but what is it exactly?

In short, Hawking showed that it is an effect created by quantum mechanics that causes black holes to evaporate.

But there’s much more to understand about this fascinating phenomenon.

Artist Rendition of Black Hole

Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know about Hawking radiation and its implications for our understanding of how black holes radiate energy and eventually evaporate.


Introducing Hawking Radiation

Hawking radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation that is created when black holes evaporate. Before delving into this concept, it is necessary to gain a deeper understanding of radiation and black hole mechanics.

What is Electromagnetic Radiation?

Aurora Borealis ionization from radiation

Electromagnetic radiation is a form of energy that traverses through space in the form of waves. It encompasses a wide range of wavelengths, from extremely long radio waves to incredibly short gamma rays.

While there are many forms of electromagnetic radiation, here are a few forms and uses that you may be familiar with:

  • Radio Waves: These have the longest wavelength and are used in broadcasting for radio and television networks.
  • Microwaves: Microwaves are used not just for heating food, but also for satellite communication and radar.
  • Infrared Waves: These waves, though not visible to the human eye, are felt as heat. They are used in heat lamps and thermal imaging cameras.
  • Visible Light: This is the only part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can see. Each color we perceive corresponds to a different wavelength.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) Rays: These waves are responsible for causing suntans and sunburns. They are used in sterilization equipment due to their germ-killing properties.

These waves are composed of two fundamental components: an electric field and a magnetic field.

[Embed video of oscillating E-field and B-field]

These fields oscillate perpendicular to each other, combining harmoniously to produce photons, which can be considered the fundamental particles of light.

Properties of Electromagnetic Radiation

These minuscule packets of energy carry a specific amount of electromagnetic radiation, each with its unique properties and characteristics, such as:

  • Frequency: the number of cycles per second

  • Wavelength: the length of one complete cycle

  • Wave Speed: the speed at which a wave propagates through space

  • Photon Energy: the amount of energy carried by each photon.

Now that we have established a foundational comprehension of radiation, let us delve into the fascinating realm of black holes.

What Are Black Holes?

Actual image of the ~6.5 billion solar mass black hole at the center of galaxy M87 using the Event Horizon Telescope.
Image Credit: Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration et al.

Black holes are extraordinary regions of space-time where gravity is so intense that even light cannot break free from its grasp. These incredibly massive objects represent the ultimate abyss, not only capturing physical matter but also distorting spacetime itself to an unrecognizable extent.

Black holes are formed during the death of a star, which is known as a supernova. If the star is massive enough, much larger than one solar mass and usually being at least 3 solar masses, the supernova will form a black hole.

However, if the star is only a few solar masses, it will form what’s known as a neutron star. A neutron star is a densely packed core that remains after a supernova. To give some perspective, one solar mass is equivalent to the massiveness of our sun, which is what actually defines one solar mass.

The boundary of a black hole is referred to as the event horizon, a pivotal point in empty space, beyond which nothing can escape its clutches, since the escape velocity is greater than the speed of light. Anything that dares to cross this threshold is destined to be inexorably drawn into oblivion.

Black holes are theorized to have been around since right after the Big Bang, where it is thought that primordial black holes were formed, along with the remnant cosmic microwave background. 

Primordial black holes are typically low mass, ranging from a few grams to about the masses of mountains. They are now thought to be spread throughout the universe and are thought to be bounded by the cosmic microwave background.

Components of a Black Hole

Simulated image of an unknown solar mass black hole surrounded by empty space

Black holes are not just simple points in space; rather they are complex structures with several components. Let’s take a look at the key components of a black hole:

  • Event Horizon: The event horizon is a point of no return around a black hole and is the boundary surrounding the black hole itself where the escape velocity becomes greater than the speed of light, thus massive particles and all matter falls in.

  • Singularity: At the very heart of a black hole, matter is crushed to an infinite density, the gravitational field is infinitely strong, and spacetime curvature becomes infinite. This point is called a singularity.

  • Accretion Disk: A swirling disk of matter that has drawn close to a black hole but is still outside the event horizon. The matter in the accretion disk gradually spirals into the black hole due to the black hole’s immense gravitational pull.

  • Ergosphere: This is a region located outside the event horizon where objects cannot remain stationary. The rotation of the black hole drags spacetime within this region into a swirling motion.

  • Jets: These are highly energetic streams of matter and outgoing radiation that are often seen shooting from the poles of a black hole. They are believed to be powered by the accretion disk.

Understanding these components provides us with a more detailed picture of the intricacies revolving around the mysterious phenomenon of black holes. It is also fascinating to note that the solutions to General Relativity predict the opposite of a black hole, which is known as a white hole.

What is the Significance of Hawking Radiation?

Prior to the prediction of Hawking radiation, it was assumed that matter would never escape the grasp of a black hole. Thus, the black hole would never shrink and only grow more dense and massive as it pulled in everything that reached the surface area of black hole’s event horizon.

These assumptions were based on a classical model of physics and it was Stephen Hawking’s quantum mechanical approach that contradicted these assumptions. 

Hawking predicted that similarly to the blackbody radiation of stars, black holes could undergo thermal emission at the very edge of the event horizon, resulting in a similar type of blackbody spectrum. 

This means that a black hole loses mass and will eventually evaporate completely, due to its radiated power. Hawking predicted that this would result in black hole explosions the equivalent to that of at least 1 million hydrogen bombs.

The idea is that pairs of virtual particles are constantly being created near the event horizon. One of these now charged particles will have enough energy to escape the gravitational pull of the black hole while the other is drawn toward it.

The escaping particle can be observed as Hawking radiation. Over an extended period of time, the gradual emission of these charged particles often leads to the evaporation of black holes.

By understanding this concept, scientists have been able to make some fascinating predictions about the universe. Let’s take a look at how it all works.

Hawking Radiation Explained: Exploring the Physics

Hawking radiation was derived using both quantum mechanical and general relativistic approaches. Let’s take a look at the physics behind this phenomenon.

A Quantum Mechanical Approach

Image of Quanta

It’s important to familiarize ourselves with quantum physics and the different quantum properties and characteristics. Here are some key terms associated with quantum theory.

  • Quantum Fluctuations: Random changes in the energy of a system caused by laws of quantum field theory, which dictate that energy can never be perfectly conserved.

  • Quantum Fields: This represents a system with an infinite number of degrees of freedom. Quantum fields are used to essentially quantify the fluctuations at each point in space and time.

  • Quantum Vacuum: Unlike the classical understanding of vacuum as empty space, the quantum vacuum is a sea of oscillating energy due to the constant creation and annihilation of virtual particles.

  • Quantum Tunneling: A phenomenon where particles move through a potential barrier that they classically could not surmount.

  • Virtual Particles: These are transient particles that appear and disappear in a short span of time. The production of these particle-antiparticle pairs occurs at the edge of a black hole’s event horizon.

  • Zero-Point Energy: The lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical system may possess, demonstrating that fluctuations continue to occur at absolute zero temperature.

  • Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: This principle explains that the position and momentum of a particle cannot be precisely determined simultaneously.

Quantum fluctuations are a direct consequence of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Essentially, these fluctuations represent temporary changes in the amounts of energy at a point in space, as allowed by the uncertainty principle.

This principle asserts that it is fundamentally impossible to simultaneously know the exact position and momentum of a particle. For a small duration, the energy of a system can be uncertain, thereby allowing the brief particle creation of particle-antiparticle pairs known as “virtual particles”.

These virtual particle-antiparticle pairs are typically short-lived, appearing and disappearing quickly, and their existence is what causes the fluctuations in the energy field. 

However, their production occurs at the edge of a black hole’s event horizon, these fluctuations play a crucial role in the creation of Hawking radiation and allow the black hole to emit radiation.

In summary, quantum effects and fluctuations reflect the randomness inherent in quantum mechanics, creating a jittery, uncertain world at incredibly small scales.

A General Relativistic Approach

Relativity is the idea that space and time are not separate entities, but rather an interwoven fabric known as spacetime. Let’s explore a handful of concepts that will help us with a General Relativistic approach.

  • General Relativity: A theory of gravitation proposed by Albert Einstein to describe the effect of gravity on matter in terms of space-time curvature.

  • Spacetime Curvature: Describes how time and space interact with each other under the influence of gravity.

  • Spacetime: A four-dimensional concept that incorporates the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time into a single construct.

  • Gravitational Field: A physical field generated by masses that causes them to be attracted to each other.

  • Gravitational Well: This is a conceptual model of the gravitational field surrounding a body in space. A deep gravitational well means a strong gravitational field, such as that found near a black hole.

  • Time Dilation: A difference in the elapsed time measured by two observers, due to a relative velocity between them or to a difference in gravitational potential between their locations.

  • Schwarzschild Radius: This is the radius of the event horizon of a non-rotating black hole.

  • Spin Down: The process by which a black hole loses energy and mass over time due to the emission of Hawking radiation.

When it comes to black holes, the general relativistic approach is one of the most popular theories. According to this theory, all matter and energy are drawn towards a singularity at the center of a black hole due to its extreme gravitational field.

The gravitational field of a black hole warps spacetime due to the black hole’s mass, which distorts the fabric of space and time around it. This distortion or “curvature” of spacetime causes particles to become trapped within the event horizon’s boundary. 

Another way to look at this is that mass tells space how to curve and space tells mass how to move. Thus, massive objects such as black holes move through curved space, or curved spacetime to be precise.

However, when a virtual particle, or particle-antiparticle pair, appears near the event horizon, their properties are slightly altered due to the curvature of spacetime. As a result, one particle will end up inside the event horizon while its counterpart escapes from it. The escaping particle is known as Hawking radiation.

Hawking radiation consists mainly of gamma rays, or photons, which are massless particles that carry away energy from the black hole. Thus, the black hole losses heat energy and mass from the emitted radiation due to the energy-mass equivalency stated by Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2. Getting closer to the edge of the black hole’s event horizon increases this effect, leading to faster rates of evaporation.

In addition, it also carries away angular momentum and charge from the black hole over time, causing it to “spin down”. In other words, the black hole’s mass is reduced, resulting in changes in its gravitational properties as it evaporates.

Hawking showed that the rate at which the black hole evaporates can be calculated with Hawking’s equation, which is based on the Hawking temperature of the radiation emitted. The higher the temperature, the more radiation emitted and the higher the energy of the radiation.

This equation also allows scientists to estimate the lifetime of a black hole, providing insight into how long it will exist before completely disappearing. Hawking’s equation is a form of the Stephen-Boltzmann blackbody equation with the temperature of the black hole inversely proportional to the surface area of the black hole.

Black Hole Evaporation - Step By Step

The process of black hole radiation evaporation can be divided into four distinct steps:

  1. Particles are attracted to the central singularity due to the immense gravitational field of the black hole.

  2. As particles approach the event horizon, virtual particles form due to the warping of spacetime caused by the curvature of spacetime near the event horizon.

  3. One of these virtual particles is pulled inside the event horizon, while its counterpart escapes and carries away energy and mass from the black hole.

  4. As a result of this process, the black hole shrinks in size due to the loss of energy and mass carried away, leading to faster rates of evaporation.

It is important to note that this process is a slow one, with the average rate estimated to be around 10^-93 kg per second. This means that an evaporating black hole would take an incredibly long time, but nonetheless, the black hole would eventually evaporate.

Future Applications of Hawking Radiation

There are many potential applications for the future.

  • Power Generation: If we could harness the emitted energy, it could serve as an inexhaustible power source. This could revolutionize energy production, offering a solution to our ever-increasing energy needs.

  • Advanced Propulsion Systems: The energy could potentially be utilized in the development of advanced propulsion systems for interstellar travel. The high-energy particles emitted could be harnessed to achieve propulsion speeds that are currently beyond our reach.

  • Quantum Computing: The underlying principles could be applied to the field of quantum computing. Understanding how information escapes from a black hole could lead to breakthroughs in quantum information processing and encryption.

  • Testing Quantum Gravity Theories: Observations could provide crucial tests for theories of quantum gravity, a field that seeks to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity to form a complete theory of gravity.

  • Studying the Early Universe: It could help us gain insights into the early universe. Some theories suggest that shortly after the Big Bang, many small black holes may have formed and evaporated, potentially leaving an imprint we could detect today.

Hawking radiation is a fascinating field of study and one that has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the universe. By researching this phenomenon, scientists may be able to uncover new insights into how space and time work on a fundamental level.

In addition, future applications could have far-reaching implications for technological development, offering us entirely new ways to generate energy or even explore the universe.

Has Hawking Radiation been confirmed?

Hawking radiation has never been directly observed. However, there is a large body of evidence that supports its existence. In particular, the principle of black hole thermodynamics states that black holes emit radiation at a steady rate due to their temperature.

There have also been indirect attempts for confirmation through simulation studies. These simulations have shown that when two black holes collide, the resulting gravitational waves could be an indication of Hawking radiation. 

Another way to study this phenomenon is through theoretical models of quantum gravity, such as string theory or loop quantum gravity.

What We Can Learn From Hawking Radiation

Theoretical physics books

Hawking radiation provides us with a unique opportunity to study the early stages of the universe and better predict the age of the universe. By understanding how the emitted radiation works, we could gain valuable insights into how space and time operate on a fundamental level.

Understanding the processes and the life of black holes can also give insight into whether our universe is dominated by positive energy or negative energy. A positive energy dominated universe will result in a collapsing universe, while a negative energy dominated universe will result in an ever expanding universe.

Additionally, exploring its potential applications could lead to entirely new ways of generating energy or even exploring other parts of the cosmos.

The study of Hawking radiation could also provide us with a better understanding of the universe’s structure. For example, it could help explain the properties of dark matter and dark energy, two mysterious phenomena that continue to baffle astronomers and cosmologists alike.

Studying Hawking radiation may help us understand more about the nature of these enigmatic forces, allowing us to make sense of our bizarre universe just a little bit better.

Studying Hawking Radiation Further

The field of Hawking radiation research is still in its infancy, and scientists are far from unlocking all the secrets of this fascinating phenomenon. 

However, researchers continue to explore its significant consequences through observation and experimentation, pushing the boundaries of our knowledge further with each breakthrough.

To gain a better understanding, physicists are looking for ways to observe it in action. While there are currently no known methods of directly observing Hawking radiation, some physicists have proposed ways to indirectly detect the phenomenon. 

For example, one such method involves using gravitational wave observatories to look for the minute ripples in spacetime that could be caused by Hawking radiation.

Further Reading and Resources

If you’re interested in learning more, there are plenty of great resources out there to explore. Here are just a few:

  • The Stephen Hawking’s Universe website provides a comprehensive overview of the subject matter, including details on how black holes evaporate and what we can learn.

  • The European Space Agency has an article that covers all the basics of the phenomenon, as well as its implications for black hole formation and evolution.

  • For a more in-depth look, check out this paper from Harvard University’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which provides a detailed analysis of the phenomenon.

  • The Royal Astronomical Society’s website also has an article that covers its history and development, as well as a range of related topics.

These are just a few of the many great resources available to help us better understand this phenomenon and its incredible implications for our understanding of the universe. With continued research and observation, we may eventually be able to answer some of the many questions that remain unanswered.


Physicist Stephen Hawking after his final paper on cosmic inflation.
Image Credit: AP Images

Hawking radiation is a fascinating phenomenon that has captivated scientists and space enthusiasts alike for decades. 

By understanding the basics, we can gain insight into some of the most mysterious phenomena in our universe, such as black hole evaporation and gravitational waves. 

With continued research and observation, we may eventually be able to unlock even more secrets about this incredibly complex phenomenon.

This theory has allowed us to gain insight into the behavior of black holes and other extreme objects in the universe, as well as help improve our understanding of fundamental physics. With its far-reaching implications for astrophysics, cosmology, and beyond, it’s no wonder that it is one of the most studied topics in science today.

So the next time you’re looking up at the night sky and contemplating the wonders of our universe, remember that Hawking radiation is just one of many fascinating phenomena out there waiting to be discovered.

Frequently Asked Questions

Has Hawking Radiation been confirmed?

Hawking radiation has never been directly observed. However, there is a large body of evidence that supports its existence.

What is the Significance of Hawking Radiation?

Hawking radiation predicts that particles can actually escape a black hole through quantum fluctuations near the event horizon, resulting in the slow process of black hole evaporation.


  • Hawking Radiation & the Physics of Black Holes. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2023, from

  • Hawking Radiation Explained: What Is Stephen Hawking’s Discovery & How Does It Work? (2021, April 21). Retrieved August 1, 2023, from

  • Hawking, S., & Israel, W. (1979). General Relativity: An Einstein Centenary Survey (Cambridge Monographs on Mathematical Physics). Cambridge University Press.

  • Thorne, K.S., Price, R.H., & Macdonald, D.A., eds. (1986). Black Holes: The Membrane Paradigm (Yale University Press).

  • Hawking Radiation and the Physics of Black Holes (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2023, from

  • Gubser, S. S., & Pretorius, F. (2017). The little book of black holes. Princeton University Press.

  • Wald, R. M. (2007). Black holes and relativistic stars. Univ. of Chicago Press.

  • Wondrak, M. F., van Suijlekom, W. D., & Falcke, H. (2023). Gravitational pair production and black hole evaporation. Physical Review Letters, 130(22).

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