The short-short version of the explanation is that Hawking radiation was the first concrete connection between General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory. According to Quantum Field Theory the whole of space-time is filled with pairs of particles and anti-particles being created in pairs, then colliding and destroying each other all around us all the time. General Relativity says that when a particle crosses the event horizon of a black hole it can never escape.
Right at the boundary of a black hole one of a pair of particles will be pulled into the hole and the other will just barely escape. When this happens, Hawking reasoned, the hole will radiate particles. He showed from theory that a black hole will emit radiation similar to that of a hot iron or an incandescent light bulb in many ways. Hawking figured out that Black Holes will obey all of the laws of thermodynamics. Hawking's work is fundamental to the study of theories which combine General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory, any plausible theory needs to be able to recreate the black hole thermodynamic results of Hawking.
Jeff Steinhauer observed a phenomena analogous to Hawking radiation in a super fluid material according to his paper in Nature. A sonic black hole is a region of fast moving fluid from which sound waves should not be able to escape.
While LED lights may be more practical, and I'm sure they will help man kind in the future, Hawking's theoretical ideas, and their confirmation by Jeff Steinhauer, will help man kind more. They have shone a light of knowledge into one of the darkest provinces of the physical world. No one knows what a wealth of practical advances will be released by our eventual mastery of Gravity and Quantum Field Theory.
Will Stephen Hawking get a Nobel Prize for this. He should.
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- 2012 Wolf Prize In Physics