There are a number of ways of describing the mechanism responsible for Hawking radiation. Here's one:
The vacuum in quantum field theory is not really empty; it's filled with "virtual pairs" of particles and antiparticles that pop in and out of existence, with lifetimes determined by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. When such pairs forms near the event horizon of a black hole, though, they are pulled apart by the tidal forces of gravity. Sometimes one member of a pair crosses the horizon, and can no longer recombine with its partner. The partner can then escape to infinity, and since it carries off positive energy, the energy (and thus the mass) of the black hole must decrease.
There is something a bit mysterious about this explanation: it requires that the particle that falls into the black hole have negative energy. Here's one way to understand what's going on. (This argument is based roughly on section 11.4 of Schutz's book, A first course in general relativity.)
To start, since we're talking about quantum field theory, let's understand what "energy" means in this context. The basic answer is that energy is determined by Planck's relation, E=hf, where f is frequency. Of course, a classical configuration of a field typically does not have a single frequency, but it can be Fourier decomposed into modes with fixed frequencies. In quantum field theory, modes with positive frequencies correspond to particles, and those with negative frequencies correspond to antiparticles.
Now, here's the key observation: frequency depends on time, and in particular on the choice of a time coordinate. We know this from special relativity, of course -- two observers in relative motion will see different frequencies for the same source. In special relativity, though, while Lorentz transformations can change the magnitude of frequency, they can't change the sign, so observers moving relative to each other with constant velocities will at least agree on the difference between particles and antiparticles.
For accelerated motion this is no longer true, even in a flat spacetime. A state that looks like a vacuum to an unaccelerated observer will be seen by an accelerated observer as a thermal bath of particle-antiparticle pairs. This predicted effect, the Unruh effect, is unfortunately too small to see with presently achievable accelerations.
The next ingredient in the mix is the observation that, as it is sometimes put, "space and time change roles inside a black hole horizon." That is, the timelike direction inside the horizon is the radial direction; motion "forward in time" is motion "radially inward" toward the singularity, and has nothing to do with what happens relative to the Schwarzschild time coordinate t.
The final ingredient is a description of vacuum fluctuations. One useful way to look at these is to say that when a virtual particle- antiparticle pair is created in the vacuum, the total energy remains zero, but one of the particles has positive energy while the other has negative energy. (For clarity: either the particle or the antiparticle can have negative energy; there's no preference for one over the other.) Now, negative-energy particles are classically forbidden, but as long as the virtual pair annihilates in a time less than h/E, the uncertainty principle allows such fluctuations.
Now, finally, here's a way to understand Hawking radiation. Picture a virtual pair created outside a black hole event horizon. One of the particles will have a positive energy E, the other a negative energy -E, with energy defined in terms of a time coordinate outside the horizon. As long as both particles stay outside the horizon, they have to recombine in a time less than h/E. Suppose, though, that in this time the negative-energy particle crosses the horizon. The criterion for it to continue to exist as a real particle is now that it must have positive energy relative to the timelike coordinate inside the horizon, i.e., that it must be moving radially inward. This can occur regardless of its energy relative to an external time coordinate.
So the black hole can absorb the negative-energy particle from a vacuum fluctuation without violating the uncertainty principle, leaving its positive-energy partner free to escape to infinity. The effect on the energy of the black hole, as seen from the outside (that is, relative to an external timelike coordinate) is that it decreases by an amount equal to the energy carried off to infinity by the positive-energy particle. Total energy is conserved, because it always was, throughout the process -- the net energy of the particle-antiparticle pair was zero.
Note that this doesn't work in the other direction -- you can't have the positive-energy particle cross the horizon and leaves the negative- energy particle stranded outside, since a negative-energy particle can't continue to exist outside the horizon for a time longer than h/E. So the black hole can lose energy to vacuum fluctuations, but it can't gain energy.
(See the relativity FAQs, here, for a related but slightly different description of black hole thermodynamics and Hawking radiation.)
- Steve Carlip (Physics, UC Davis)